ESPN thought it had it all set up.
It would put two big-time basketball programs head-to-head in an early December matchup, find an exciting storyline — like a coach playing against an old school with which he experienced great success — play the game in a unique location and put the contest on primetime television. It would automatically be must-see TV.
But when West Virginia and Michigan meet for the first time on the basketball court tonight in Brooklyn’s sparkling new Barclays Center, as part of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, it won’t quite be the matchup that ESPN, which will air the game at 8 p.m., was expecting.
Michigan has certainly upheld its end of the bargain. The Wolverines — coached by John Beilein, who took the Mountaineers to an Elite Eight and an NIT championship in five seasons in Morgantown — enter the game with a 10-0 record and a No. 3 national ranking. They’ve already defeated Pitt, Kansas State and No. 18 N.C. State, and there is Final Four talk in Ann Arbor, Mich.
WVU, though, has struggled to find its footing with a number of new faces in its lineup.
The Mountaineers looked as though they had recovered from a 1-3 start when they won three straight, including handing Virginia Tech its first loss of the season. But they blew a double-digit lead on the road at Duquesne Tuesday and enter today’s game with a disappointing 4-4 record.
“I think everybody thought it would be a marquee national game, and we haven’t held up our end of the bargain,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of today’s made-for-TV showcase. “We thought at this time we’d be better than what we’ve been. I think everybody thought that.”
Part of the problem for the Mountaineers has been shooting the basketball. They’re last in their new conference, the Big 12, in field goal percentage, making just 39 percent of their shots. A .264 3-point percentage has also caused problems, and games have been lost at the free throw line, where WVU is shooting 68 percent.
Everybody, it seems, has been searching for a reason for WVU’s struggles to put the ball through the cylinder, and the new multimillion-dollar practice facility, which the Mountaineers are using for the first time this season, has even been blamed.
Could not getting shots in the Coliseum actually be causing problems?
Huggins isn’t buying it.
“I hear, ‘You’ve got to shoot more in the Coliseum because of depth perception,’” said Huggins. “I grew up shooting on a hoop that was nailed up to the house. I could shoot.”
He also isn’t using the road, where the Mountaineers have played six of their first eight games, as an excuse.
“I tell our guys all the time, people play better at home, but it’s more because of routine than anything else,” said Huggins. “When I first got here, I said, ‘We’re going to go win two on the road,’ and they looked at me like, ‘what?’ I think all the hoops are still 10 feet high. The foul line’s still 15 feet.
“People talk about crowd,” he continued. “I’ve never seen the crowd make a free throw, get a steal or block a shot. I think it’s a state of mind, and I think good players and really competitive guys (love to go on the road).”
What Huggins will admit is that the Mountaineers need to start winning, and winning a lot, to continue the streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances since the coach returned to his alma mater.
“We’re sitting here with four losses in eight games, and every game becomes critical for us if we indeed want to continue to play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Huggins, just three seasons removed from taking the Mountaineers to the Final Four. “They’re all important for us now.”
Michigan isn’t exactly the team a coach wants on his schedule in a must-win situation.
Beilein’s Princeton-style offense and 1-3-1 defense are difficult enough for opponents to solve when they’re run by average players. But this Michigan group is anything but average.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke has averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while the sons of a couple of basketball legends, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, have also turned some heads.
Hardaway has averaged 14.8 points and 2.1 assists per game through the Wolverines’ hot start, and Robinson has pulled down 6.5 boards per outing.
But WVU’s players are looking at today’s game not as an impossible challenge, but instead as an incredible opportunity.
“You really look forward to these opportunities,” said WVU sophomore forward Kevin Noreen, who scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the win over the undefeated Hokies last Saturday. “It’s a bit of nervous excitement. You’re just edgy and want to get out there and get playing.
“I know a lot of our guys have been looking forward to this trip to New York. We know it’s a business trip, though, and we want to go up and come out with a win.”
To do that, WVU will have to play almost a perfect game — for all 40 minutes.
“We can’t play just the first half; we have to play the whole game,” said forward Keaton Miles. “We didn’t do that against Duquesne.”
Huggins said he can’t guarantee his team will suddenly shake off all its struggles and shoot 50 percent tonight, but he said he did expect his team to take the court ready to play.
And with a few breaks, the loss to the Dukes could quickly be forgotten.
“It would right the ship for us, that’s for sure,” said Noreen of a possible upset of the Wolverines. “If we’re able to go up there, focus and have some things fall our way, this could be a turning point. This could be just what we need to turn the season around a little bit and get it going the right way.”
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.
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