By Cam Huffman
West Virginia traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., over the Thanksgiving weekend with something to prove — it wasn’t the team that looked so bad in an 84-50 loss to Gonzaga in the season opener.
After going 1-2 in the Old Spice Classic — the only win coming against lowly Marist and with losses to Davidson (63-60) and Oklahoma (77-70) — the only thing that’s been proven is that there’s still a long way to go.
“We go 8-for-17 from the free-throw line against Davidson and miss some easy shots,” said head coach Bob Huggins Tuesday, explaining the difficult losses. “We got the Oklahoma game going the way we wanted it to, and we threw the ball to them a couple times and missed some more free throws.
“It isn’t good, but it isn’t that bad, either. Things are never as good as you think they are and never as bad as you think they are. We’re going to be alright. We’ll get things straightened out.”
The Mountaineers (1-3) will attempt to start that climb back tonight when they open up the home portion of the 2012-13 schedule by hosting Virginia Military Institute at 7 p.m. The game will be televised by ROOT Sports, with Rob King handling the play-by-play and former WVU and Greenbrier East High School great Warren Baker serving as the color analyst.
Former members of the Southern Conference together from 1950-68, WVU and VMI have met 47 times over the years, with the Mountaineers leading the all-time series 42-5. The Keydets, though, have never visited the Coliseum, where WVU is 59-14 under Huggins.
This year’s Keydets are 3-3 with wins over Central Pennsylvania College, Old Dominion and Elon and losses to The Citadel, Army and Virginia Tech. They’ve won the last two, though, and they’re averaging 85.3 points per game behind the efforts of senior forward Stan Okoye, who is averaging 21 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
“Their big guy is their leading scorer,” said Gary Browne, WVU’s sophomore guard, who’s averaging 9.3 points per game and is tied for the team lead with six assists. “So we just have to rebound the ball and make sure he doesn’t get easy baskets.”
VMI will push the tempo and try to get off as many shots as possible, but Huggins, who wants his team to run more this year, as well, doesn’t necessarily want to see an up-and-down game.
“We don’t want them to play fast. We want to play fast,” he explained. “The teams that are good at playing fast, don’t let other teams play fast. Teams that are good at getting transition baskets get a lot of it off their defense.”
The Mountaineers will have a definite size advantage against VMI, and Huggins will be looking for improvement from senior forward Deniz Kilicli, who’s struggled out of the gates, averaging just 8.5 points per game and committing a team-high 14 turnovers.
“We know we’re a good team, and that’s how we should play,” said Kilicli. “If anybody thinks we’re going to lose again or that we don’t have what it takes to win, they shouldn’t be here. Finishing strong is more important than starting good. If we keep playing, I think we can finish strong.”
The early struggles, Huggins believes, will eventually make his team stronger.
“The truth is, we could have played some people and been 4-0 right now, and everybody would be thinking we were going to be really good,” explained the veteran coach, who’s won more than 700 career games and hasn’t had a losing season since going 12-14 his first year at Akron in 1984-85. “But we didn’t. We came out of the gate playing people pretty good.
“We’re not going to lose it. In 31 years, we’ve never lost it. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes. It hasn’t been just one guy. It’s been a whole bunch of different guys. We’re learning, and we’re doing better. We just have to score points.”
After today’s game, WVU will have a week to prepare for the Dec. 5 meeting with Marshall in Charleston.