WVU basketball: In Big 12 opener, a familiar foe awaits
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia begins its inaugural season of Big 12 Conference competition at home Saturday under unusual circumstances.
The 4 p.m. home game at the sold-out Coliseum is against Oklahoma, which beat the Mountaineers in November's Old Spice Classic in a non-conference game. The Sooners won 77-70 and six players had at least eight points.
So there's some familiarity as the Mountaineers follow their football brethren and embark on their maiden Big 12 voyage. WVU's football team couldn't keep up with the Big 12 opposition, even though a year before the move it made some of the needed changes with Coach Dana Holgorsen and his Big 12 experience.
Bob Huggins coached Kansas State in the Big 12 in the 2006-07 season, but basketball success isn't quite as much about fitting in as it is leaning on what works.
"Bob is certainly not going to have any problem adjusting," Oklahoma Coach Lon Kruger said. "He's been working at it a long time and he knows you do what your people do best and what gives you the best chance to be effective.
"He's going to try to do that and not come in - and nor would any other coach - and say, 'That's the Big 12 style, we've got to do it that way.' You've got to do what your people are most comfortable doing."
And here's where things get a little weird. The Mountaineers (7-5) have struggled so much on offense, where they rank ninth in the 10-team Big 12 in field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting, that Huggins had tweaked his motion offense just a little.
In Saturday's win against Eastern Kentucky, the third in a row in a three-game, 12-day homestand, WVU featured some dribble-drive elements. Huggins had his ball-handlers move with the ball into the paint, where they were to decide to shoot or kick it out to shooters.
It was something the team worked on quite a bit during the practice time between games.
"Way too much, in all honesty," Huggins said. "Way too much."
Huggins said the first time the offense went to the dribble-drive, the players failed to move the ball with passes or dribble handoffs. The plan's key is to get the defenders out of position, and especially out of the paint, to create spaces for drives. Defenses consistently have crowded the paint against WVU and dared the Mountaineers to take jump shots.
"We run right over a guy, even though we're yelling to move them first," Huggins said. "Honest to God, I learned that in fifth grade playing bitty basketball. You've got to move him before you drive it in there. They're all standing in there.
"We come down a second time and a different guy does the exact same thing, almost in the exact same spot. Charge."
Though it's not a dramatic shift of the offense, Huggins admitted there are flaws within the idea. His team shoots 27.5 percent from 3-point range and 45.3 percent from 2-point range. The dribble-drive, popularized recently by Kentucky and Coach John Calipari, creates open jump shots.
"Have you watched the dribble drive, really? Have you watched Kentucky?" Huggins said after the Eastern Kentucky game. "They shoot jump shots. They shoot 3s. They don't get a whole lot of layups. They penetrate and pitch. They penetrate and they kick.
"Look at this stat sheet and tell me who the hell you want me to kick it to."
The Sooners (9-3) will know. WVU was 4-for-14 from 3-point range in the Classic and shot just 36.2 percent from the floor.
The Mountaineers nevertheless have been winning in this streak without much offense. They've averaged just 72 points and have won by an average of seven points per game against opponents from the Summit League, the Big South Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Sooners are used to close games. A year ago, they were 4-5 in games decided by seven or fewer points. All five starters and five seniors returned this season. Oklahoma is 5-2 in those same close games this season, including the win against WVU and a loss to Stephen F. Austin - a sneaky good team that's 10-1 and leads the nation in scoring defense.
"The best case is players have the confidence someone is going to make a play and expect it to happen," Kruger said. "When you haven't done it before, the attitude is you hope nothing goes wrong. That's not healthy. I think the experience guys have going through it helps, but you still have to do it."
Romero Osby averages 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds and Steven Pledger averages 11.7 points. Both had eight points and six rebounds while in foul trouble against WVU. Transfer Amath M'Baye, the preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, averages 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. He had 19 points and six rebounds in the Classic and has given the Sooners some of the toughness Kruger was looking for in the offseason.
"We're not a physical group, by nature, so we've got to manufacture a little more with that," he said. "It's a physical game. Individually, we've got probably more personalities of finesse people. We're not a big, strapping team, just from a physical appearance.
"We're going to play against some big, strong people and we've got to be more physical to hold our own on the boards, get loose balls, set screens. I think all teams would like to be a little more physical. Certainly we need to be."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.