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WVU basketball: Gonzaga to give Huggins answers about team

SPOKANE, Wash. -- As the clock strikes midnight tonight in West Virginia, Coach Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers will be tipping off 24 hours of college basketball on ESPN.

The first opponent on WVU's schedule is host Gonzaga, a nationally ranked program that returns four of five starters from the team that emphatically bounced the Mountaineers from the NCAA Tournament in March.

This is a daunting season opener, but one in which Huggins relishes.

By zigzagging three times zones to face the Zags here in the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, the veteran hoops headman can learn plenty about his team.

"I would rather (play Gonzaga) than schedule five games that we win by 30 or 40, so you mask your problems and then all of a sudden reality sets in," Huggins said.

"I think that's good."

Huggins, who at 59 years old will embark on his sixth season at his alma mater and 31st overall as a head coach, recalled a regular-season opener 11 years ago at Cincinnati.

On Nov. 16, 2001, Huggins' Bearcats suffered a 69-62 loss  at No. 18 Oklahoma State.

It was a stiff challenge that allowed Huggins to assess his team and right the wrongs in mid-November rather than weeks or months into the season.

Cincinnati lost to a ranked team on the road and then reeled off 20 consecutive wins - by an average of 22.2 points - and made the arduous climb from unranked to as high as No. 4 in the national polls.

"We had some soul-searching, you know, and some guys questioned some other guys' fortitude and I questioned a lot of guys' fortitude," he said. "We knew what we had to fix."

The season-opening loss to Oklahoma State was Huggins' first chance to return to the floor following the previous season's 13-point loss to Stanford to conclude the season.

Gonzaga routed WVU by 23 points in the NCAA Tournament, leaving Huggins with a sore spot that didn't heal this offseason.

"I don't lose very well," he said. "There's a whole lot of people I'd like to play again. Like 14 of them."  

Huggins called the loss to Gonzaga seven months ago "embarrassing."

Last season was the first time one of Huggins' WVU teams didn't reach 20 wins. The Mountaineers went 19-14, just the third time since his first year at Akron in 1984-85 that he didn't notch 20 wins in a season.

Gonzaga can brag about 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament trips and 15 straight 20-win seasons.

The McCarthey Athletic Center - colloquially known as "The New Kennel" - has been open since 2004. Gonzaga is 104-7 in this building.

The four starters returning for Gonzaga are Gary Bell Jr. (6-foot-1 sophomore), Elias Harris (6-8 senior), Mike Hart (6-6 senior) and Kevin Pangos (6-2 sophomore).

That quartet combined to score 42 points against WVU on March 15, but they accounted for just 30 of the team's 103 points in a 38-point win over Southern Utah in the Bulldogs' season opener Friday.

The Zags' top three bench options return, but a couple received the start against Southern Utah.

David Stockton, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound son of former NBA and Gonzaga star John Stockton, was one of six players in double figures in the Zags' season opener.

Baby Stockton came off the bench, as he did in all but one game last season.

Two other key returners who have moved into the starting lineup - Guy Landry Edi and Sam Dower - scored 16 and 15 points, respectively, against Southern Utah.

Newcomer Prezemek Karnowski, a 7-1, 300-pound freshman from Poland, scored 22 points in 20 minutes off the bench in his collegiate debut. He's regarded as a future first-round NBA draft pick.

Gonzaga's seven home losses in nine seasons at the MAC have been to Santa Clara, Washington State, Portland State, Wake Forest, San Diego State, Saint Mary's and Michigan State.

If West Virginia doesn't join that list, at least Huggins can figure out what he needs to tweak.

"I think we'll find out real quick what our issues are and we can go about fixing them," he said.

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949.


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