MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There are many things at stake tonight when West Virginia plays host to No. 20 Gonzaga, chief among them the mental health of Coach Bob Huggins. He'd like little more than to see the usual show of support for the rare occasions the Mountaineers play a ranked opponent at the Coliseum in non-conference play.
"I need it for my psyche," he said from a blue seat on the baseline Monday afternoon. "I'm tired of walking in here and seeing so many empty seats."
The Bulldogs are just the sixth ranked non-conference team to visit WVU since the start of the 2001-02 season. The average attendance is 13,692 and has ranged from 11,139 to 15,033. WVU's average home attendance this season is 5,789 and two of the crowds for a 5-0 home record have been the smallest since the start of the 2004-05 season.
The 9 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN2, but is also during dead week at WVU and some students are already on their way out of town for the winter break. The school is selling tickets for $10.
It's important to Huggins, not just for the size of the crowd, but for the outcome of the game. He's 37-1 at home in non-conference games and has three of the wins in a five-game winning streak against ranked non-conference teams.
Huggins beat No. 8 Purdue in 2011 (attendance: 14,173), No. 21 Ohio State in 2010 (15,033) and No. 15 Ole Miss in 2009 (11,139). John Beilein's teams beat No. 2 UCLA in 2007 (14,160) and No. 20 George Washington in 2004 (13,956).
The last loss at home to a ranked team in non-conference play was in 2000 when No. 7 Tennessee won before a crowd of 8,243.
"It helps," Huggins said. "When our students are into it, this is a great place. Most teams play better at home, but I think over the years, historically West Virginia has played great in this arena to a large degree because of the fans."
Gonzaga is 8-1 with a loss to Dayton in the Maui Invitational. The Bulldogs thumped WVU twice in the past 21 months, the first a 77-54 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh in the 2011-12 season, and the second an 84-50 win to start the 2012-13 season. That was the worst loss of Huggins' career and the start of the worst season of his career.
These Mountaineers would like to prove things have changed, though the timing is interesting because WVU trailed by 25 points halfway through the second half of Thursday's loss to unbeaten Missouri, which is now ranked No. 24.
"Every game from now on is going to be a tough game," sophomore guard Eron Harris said. "That's what Coach has been stressing. Every game now is a big game, and then we get into the Big 12 season, where every game is a tough game. This is preparation for us proving it to the world, to the nation what we can do. We've got something to prove."
Gonzaga's top three scorers, five starters and seven of the top eight players this season all played in last season's game. The only regular rotation player this season who wasn't on last year's team is Gerard Coleman, a transfer from Providence who had to sit out in 2012-13, but who also scored 30 points for the Friars in an overtime loss to WVU in the 2011-12 season.
He's one of four Gonzaga players scoring in double figures and leading an offense that is No. 1 nationally in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage and No. 6 in scoring (90.4 points per game).