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Chuck McGill: WVU could be facing tougher Big 12 this season

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A single-question quiz before we delve into WVU's first Big 12 basketball test: Two Division I men's hoops players are averaging at least 15 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. The answer is at the end of the column. No cheating.

OK, so the Big East-to-Big 12 move was obviously going to be a significant upgrade in football competition for West Virginia University, but who'd a thought the Mountaineers would be playing in the RPI's No. 1 basketball league?

WVU commences its second season in the Big 12 this Saturday at TCU, the first of 18 rigorous conference games that includes a dozen matchups against teams currently in the top 50 of the RPI. The Mountaineers (8-5) may be better armed on the second go-around, but so is everyone else.

The Big 12 has a slight edge over the Big Ten for the top overall league through the 2013 portion of the college basketball season. The Big 12 has six wins against the RPI top 25 so far, while the Big Ten has four. The Big 12 has eight wins against 26-50, while the Big Ten has six. Both teams have 18 wins against teams ranked 51-100, but the Big 12 has only four losses to the Big Ten's seven.

That is a huge boost in league perception, thanks in no part to the Mountaineers. The Big 12 has 52 wins against the top 200 in the RPI and Coach Bob Huggins' club has zero of them.

West Virginia finished its inaugural Big 12 season 6-12. This year's preseason hoops poll slotted the Mountaineers at No. 7, a perfect spot considering last season they lost all 12 games against the teams predicted to finish above them in the 2013-14 poll, and went a perfect 6-0 against the three teams voted below them.

WVU doesn't yet have a marquee win - its first Big 12 triumph will be its best victory this season - but there is a confidence emanating from the gold and blue camp.

"I think we're a team that's kind of underrated," junior point guard Juwan Staten said this week. "I think we have a dangerous team this year, a lot of 3-point threats. We're still getting better.

"I don't think teams recognize how good we can be."

It is, however, up to Staten and his teammates to make that happen.

Staten is correct, though. This WVU team can shoot it, which is important. The Mountaineers are the only team in the Big 12 shooting 70 percent from the foul line and 40 percent from beyond the arc.

"If we make shots," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "I've done this so long that I'd hate to just trust making shots. We've got to guard better and I think we took a small step in that direction (against William & Mary). You can't give up a dozen layups to people."

West Virginia shut down William & Mary in its final regular season non-conference game. The Tribe shot just 25 percent from the floor and made only eight two-point shots in 40 minutes, which Huggins can only hope is a harbinger for Big 12 play. WVU is 5-0 this season when opponents are held to under 40 percent shooting. Last season, although wins were scarce, the Mountaineers were 7-0 when opponents were held below 40 percent shooting.

"They're young; they're learning," Huggins said.

"I think the hardest thing that anybody has to learn is how hard you have to play and what happens when you take plays off.

"We just can't give easy baskets. You can't not get to the help line. You can't not gap things and keep people out of the lane. It's hard to be consistent scoring the ball when you consistently have to score it over somebody."

The Big 12 has seven teams averaging at least 78.0 points per game. Iowa State (88.2) is No. 2 nationally. Oklahoma (87.2) and Oklahoma State (87.2) are Nos. 7 and 9, respectively.

Everyone can score. The teams that stay in the top half of the 10-team Big 12 will be the ones that can defend.

"It's going to be hard for us to survive if we don't have everybody playing pretty well," Huggins said after his team routed William & Mary by 37 points last Sunday.

"We have some momentum," freshman forward Nathan Adrian said. "I feel pretty good about our team. I've watched (Big 12 teams), but I'm not going to make any assumptions."

Just assume that the league will be tougher than ever.

*  *  *

THE ANSWER to the trivia question at the start of the column: WVU's Juwan Staten and Iowa State's DeAndre Kane.

Staten is averaging 16.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists through 13 games. Kane, a first-year Big 12 player who transferred from Marshall, is averaging 15 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists.

Kane and the Cyclones will kick off Big 12 play Saturday at Texas Tech, which is WVU's Monday opponent. Iowa State is one of eight remaining unbeatens in Division I and the program is No. 6 in the RPI and No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Kane, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Week, deserves a heap of credit for the Cyclones' start. They'll visit Morgantown to face WVU on Feb. 10.

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.


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