By Cam Huffman
Now the real challenge begins.
After taking care of business on the road against TCU and Texas Tech to begin Big 12 play, the West Virginia University basketball team will jump from the bottom of the conference to the top today when No. 11 Oklahoma State (13-2, 1-1 Big 12) visits the WVU Coliseum for a 4 p.m. showdown that will air locally on WOAY TV.
The Mountaineers (10-5, 2-0 Big 12) have had opportunities to turn heads already this season. They fell just short in a 70-63 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin in Puerto Rico in November and let a lead slip away against No. 20 Gonzaga in Morgantown in December. But after a solid road trip to the Lone Star State last weekend, during which the Mountaineers picked up two Big 12 wins in three days, head coach Bob Huggins is hopeful his team is ready to finally get that signature victory that puts WVU basketball back on the national map.
The Mountaineers are playing with confidence, having won three straight and four of their last five after a string of three losses in four games in late November and early December. The only loss during the recent run was a 73-70 home loss to Purdue, another one of those games WVU felt it let slip through its fingers.
“We are in a position where we need to win a whole lot more,” said Huggins, whose team hasn’t played since downing the Red Raiders in overtime on Monday. “It would be great to win at home. But we have to play well, and we have to finish better than we have to this point.”
The strength of the Mountaineer squad is a backcourt that is among the best in the Big 12. Sophomore guard Eron Harris is second in the league in scoring at 18.5 points per game and in 3-point field goals with 41 in 15 games. Junior point guard Juwan Staten leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio with a 3.46 ratio. He’s averaging 16.8 points and 6 assists per game.
Backup point guard Gary Browne has also played well, and sophomore guard Terry Henderson is finally rounding into form after battling injuries in the early part of the season. He’s averaging 11.3 points per game and has scored 45 points over the last three outings.
Inside, WVU has been much less consistent. The Mountaineers are one of the Big 12’s worst rebounding teams, and they’ve struggled to get points from their big men.
Freshman Devin Williams is averaging 7.7 rebounds per game, but he hasn’t had much help. Fellow freshmen Nathan Adrian and Brandon Watkins have had good days and bad days as they continue to adjust to the college game.
Scoring certainly hasn’t been a problem for the Cowboys, who are 12th nationally at 85.8 points per game. They also have a top-notch backcourt with Marcus Smart and Markel Brown.
Smart, a candidate for league and national player of the year honors, is averaging 17.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. The sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas, had a 24-point, 11-rebound effort in an 87-74 win over Texas the last time out.
Brown, a senior from Louisiana, has been almost as impressive, averaging 17.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
“They’re the most athletic team we’ve played to this point, and we’ve somehow got to try to keep them out of transition,” said Huggins. “Smart’s terrific and does so many things for them, but they’ve got a lot of guys who are extremely athletic.”
Like WVU, OSU has struggled on the boards, and it recently lost one of its top inside threats when Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending achilies injury. He was the Cowboys’ leading shot blocker and made a big difference in the paint. But they still have junior forward Le’Bryan Nash, a former McDonald’s All-American who’s averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
“He’s playing the best he’s ever played,” said Huggins.
As strong as the OSU offense has been, defense may be what really makes the Cowboys a threat to end Kansas’ run of Big 12 titles. OSU leads the league in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to hit on less than 38 percent of their attempts from the field, and is second with 6.33 blocked shots per game. The Cowboys lead the conference with more than eight steals per contest.
“They’re all just so quick to the ball,” said Huggins of what makes the Cowboys so good defensively. “I don’t think there’s any question they’re the fastest team in our league.”
Today’s game will be the fourth all-time meeting between the two schools. WVU beat OSU 67-49 in the Kentucky Invitational in 1958, but the Cowboys won both meetings last year, 80-66 in Stillwater, Okla., and 73-57 in Morgantown.
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Today’s game is a “Stripe the Coliseum” promotion. Fans attending the game are encouraged to visit www.wvusports.com/stripecoliseum to find out whether to wear gold or blue to the game. A detailed map is provided at that site.
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.