By Cam Huffman
After West Virginia’s worst performance of the year two weeks ago today in Manhattan, Kan. — a 78-56 loss to the Kansas State Wildcats — Mountaineer basketball coach Bob Huggins wasn’t shy about his feelings.
“I’m looking forward to these boys rolling back into Morgantown,” he told radio broadcasters Tony Caridi and Jay Jacobs during the postgame interview. “I promise you we will be an entirely different team when they roll into Morgantown.”
Huggins and the Mountaineers will have a chance to back up those words today when the Wildcats visit the WVU Coliseum for a 1:30 p.m. tipoff. The game will air locally on WOAY television.
WVU (12-9, 4-4) has played better since the embarrassment at KSU. The Mountaineers returned home four days after that beatdown and knocked off Texas Tech to get back to .500 on the year. They had a real chance for a victory on the road against No. 11 Oklahoma State last Saturday, before falling 81-75, and this past Tuesday they went to Baylor and beat a team that had once been ranked in the top 10 on their own floor.
“We’re close,” said Huggins, whose team is just one win away from matching the win total from last season’s 13-19 campaign with 10 games left on the schedule. “I know I keep saying that, but we’re close. We’re a couple of stops, a couple of key rebounds or making a basket or two away from having five or six more wins.
“But as close as you think you are, you’re really also that far away, because the reality is you’ve got to do it. We’ve got to step up.”
As WVU learned earlier this month, KSU (15-6, 5-3 Big 12) is no pushover. The Wildcats have been ranked at times this season, and they had a 10-game winning streak at one point in the year. KSU has quality wins over No. 21 Gonzaga, No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Oklahoma on its resumé and is in fourth place in a loaded Big 12. Bruce Weber’s team, though, has lost two of its last three and three of its last six.
Three players — Marcus Foster (13.4), Thomas Gipson (12.8) and Shane Southwell (11.3) — average double figures in scoring. Gipson, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, also averages 6.2 rebounds per game. He had 20 points and six rebounds the last time against WVU. Southwell, a 6-7 senior guard, averages 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per outing and had a 20-point, five-rebound and four-assist performance against the Mountaineers.
“They’re really physical,” said Huggins. “They are the most physical team in our league.”
For WVU — currently sixth in the 10-team Big 12 — the play of junior point guard Juwan Staten will be key. He’s averaging 17.2 points and six assists per game, and his 2.93 assists-to-turnover ratio is the best in the league. Staten, who made the winning shot with 3 seconds on the clock in the win over Baylor, scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds last time against KSU, but he also had seven costly turnovers.
Eron Harris led WVU with 21 points in the last meeting and is averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game.
Points didn’t come easy for WVU at KSU. Against the league’s best scoring defense — the WIldcats are allowing just 61.1 points per game — the Mountaineers shot 32 percent from the field and just 26 percent from 3-point range. Weber’s club, meanwhile, shot 55 percent from the field and 43 percent from long range.
“We shot it too quickly,” said Huggins. “We got behind, and we were going to catch up all at once, which is kind of what young guys do. We didn’t have much patience.”
After today, WVU will play seven of its final nine regular season games against teams ranked in the top 25.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.