Upcoming games will define WVU basketball team
Bob Huggins is going to learn a lot more about his West Virginia basketball team in the next four games than the Mountaineers' veteran coach did in the first four of the season.
After a rare holiday break - it's the first time since 1992-93 that WVU won't play over Thanksgiving weekend - the Mountaineers (3-1) will head into a two-week stretch that could define more than their Ratings Percentage Index.
Akron (2-2) visits the WVU Coliseum on Monday, and then WVU plays its only non-conference road game of the season in the aptly named Big East-SEC Challenge, on Dec. 3 at No. 24 Mississippi State (5-1).
On Dec. 8, WVU treks to 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., to face Kansas State (3-0) for a neutral site date, then comes home and 47 hours later hosts former Big East foe Miami (4-0), which pasted the Mountaineers in Coral Gables last December.
Two of the foes are former coaching stops for Huggins - Akron and K-State - but what will occupy his thoughts is whether his young WVU team has grown enough to face a greater degree of difficulty as it heads toward conference play beginning in late December.
Up next is Akron, which has lost to Valparaiso and Duquesne and is the only club to beat Mississippi State, winning in Starkville, Miss., 68-58.
The SEC team then knocked off nationally ranked Texas A&M and Arizona on back-to-back nights last week in Madison Square Garden to win the 2K Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
WVU never has played in MSU's Humphrey Coliseum. The only previous meeting between the school was West Virginia's 63-62 semifinal win over the Bulldogs in the 2007 NIT at the Garden on Darris Nichols' corner jumper.
WVU beat Clemson two nights later for a title in John Beilein's last game as WVU coach before Huggins left K-State for his alma mater homecoming.
"It's going to be a tough atmosphere, even with the Akron game, where we're home; they're pretty tough team," said WVU senior forward Kevin Jones after the Mountaineers' 83-48 romp past Morehead State on Tuesday night at the Charleston Civic Center. "Kansas State is always hard to play. Mississippi State is always hard to play.
"It's always hard to play away from home. That's where our confidence has to increase even more. We have to go out there with a kind of swagger that we have sometimes, but it needs to be more consistent in order for us to be successful."
Jones, who has three double-doubles in four games, said the WVU freshmen will have an eye-opening experience in the coming weeks in hitting the road farther from Morgantown than a bus trip down I-79 to the capital city.
"It's something you've got to experience on your own, like Truck (Bryant) and me had to experience when we were freshmen," said Jones, who ranked third in the Big East in scoring (21.8 points) and tops in rebounding (12.3). "Going into Ole Miss, Marquette, Georgetown, places like that that we weren't used to ... I'm sure they'll do fine."
Akron was second to recent WVU conqueror Kent State in the Mid-American Conference preseason coaches' poll. The Zips, who had 120 wins in the last five seasons, have a solid core of senior starters back, including former Nitro High marksman Brett McClanahan and two quality big men in 7-foot Zeke Marshall and 6-foot-8 Nikola Cvetinovic, plus several transfers.
"Akron's next," said Bryant, WVU's senior guard, "and (the impending games) will show one thing. It will show that the freshmen are not there yet or show that they have arrived and we'll be fine throughout the whole process, throughout the Big East."
He called the Mississippi State and K-State dates "two tough games right there, one of our two best games, so we've just got to bring it, continue to get better in practice, and I think we'll be fine."
Huggins has admitted he may have overscheduled in non-conference with a young team, but he's always played a quality schedule to boost his team's RPI, no matter his location.
Bryant said the Mountaineers have improved significantly, especially on switching men on defense and guarding the ball, but the upcoming challenges will be telling to Huggins and his team.
"We can get better, a lot better, take one step at as time, keep on progressing, keep on telling (the freshmen) to get better every day," he said. "They've really been working hard, listening more than anything. They've stepped up really well, and we're going to need that."
"Being a leader of this team is interesting. At the beginning of season, I didn't really know what to expect from this team. We're playing really well right now, but there's always room for improvement. So as long as we keep on improving every day, I'm fine with it.
"I'd say we're about halfway from where I think we can be a really good team, and the only way we're going to reach our full potential is just keep on working hard, and everybody do their part."
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-7949.