Ultimate issue: defense
If you ask WVU point guard Truck Bryant heading into West Virginia's matchup against Kansas State tonight to nail down one, main issue that has hampered the Mountaineers in their two losses this season, he will give a short, precise answer.
"Defense," Bryant said. "It all starts with 'D.'"
Fair enough, but the Mountaineers (4-2) may have to deal with factors they can't defend against when they tussle with the Wildcats at 9 p.m. tonight at the Wildcat Classic in Wichita, Kan. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
One question that looms as large if not more significant than simple X's and O's will relate to the intensity of the crowd and the emotions on all sides as WVU coach Bob Huggins returns to Kansas to take on a team he led to the NIT in his one season at the helm in 2006-2007.
In order to predict the answer, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at history and how much the program was behind Huggins when he arrived in Manhattan, Kan. where he took over a program that hadn't been to an NCAA tournament in a decade and hadn't compiled a Big 12 conference record better than 7-9.
The reaction to Huggins' hiring was immediate as all season ticket packages for Bramlage Coliseum were sold out for the first time and average attendance rose by over 5,000 from the 2005-2006 season.
Yet Huggins left the program for WVU, his alma mater, despite Kansas State meeting if not exceeding the offer of West Virginia.
So coach, think the K-State fan base may still hold a little grudge?
"Someone asked me what kind of reception I think I'll get. I said, 'An OK one,'" Huggins said. "He asked what if I get booed? I said, 'I don't know. I've never been booed before.'"
For the record, all has worked out OK for Kansas State. Former Huggins assistant Frank Martin has turned K-State into a perennial power, leading the Wildcats to NCAA tournament appearances in three of the last four seasons, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2010.
Whatever hostility may be awaiting the Mountaineers in Wichita, it will be important for WVU to match that - a point not lost on Bryant.
"Yes definitely," Bryant said when asked if there was an urgency to win this game for Huggins. "It would be a huge win for him and it would be a huge win for the team. It's not something we've addressed yet but as a leader, I definitely will."
With all the surrounding intrigue, the importance of the actual game can easily get lost. But the fact is WVU finds itself a bit on the ropes after losses to Kent State and Mississippi State.
Bryant refers back to defense to explain the Mountaineers' shortcomings.
"We just didn't get stops when we needed them," Bryant said of WVU's loss to the Bulldogs on Saturday. "We did a really poor job of playing defense down the stretch and it led to a loss."
In addition to the Wildcats, the Mountaineers will also face Miami at home, and Missouri State and Baylor in Las Vegas in nonconference play - all before starting the gauntlet that is the Big East.
Meanwhile, West Virginia is trying to break in a host of freshmen while somehow finding cohesion between the youngsters and veterans Bryant, Kevin Jones, and Deniz Kilicli.
Yet quality nonconference wins are at a premium and a victory over the undefeated Wildcats (5-0) would certainly qualify. Bryant said the rookies have come along nicely despite mixed results, and need to continue to do so.
"They've gotten a lot better with every practice and every game," Bryant said. "We need to get better on defense and offense and we need to all get on the same page."
The Mountaineers shouldn't be surprised by anything they see from K-State. In fact, the two squads mirror each other, relying on defense to make a living.
The Wildcats are allowing just 59 points per game while WVU is yielding 63.7. The Mountaineers need to take advantage of an edge on the glass where WVU is plus-8 per game in rebounding and the Wildcats plus-3.
"What impresses me is their defense," Bryant said. "They do everything we do, especially playing good 'D'. It will be a good test and we will have to make smart decisions."
Jones has gotten off to a great start to the season, averaging 19.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, tops in both categories on either team. Bryant is averaging 14.2 points per game while freshman Jabarie Hinds checks in at 11.5 and Kilicli at 11.2.
The Wildcats also have four players averaging double figures, led by Jamar Samuels at 13 points per game. Thomas Gipson and Will Spradling each average a dozen points per contest and Rodney McGruder comes in at 11.8.
With all of the uncertainties in what promises to be a physical, grind-it-out battle, Huggins has a pretty good grip on what kind of game he expects tonight.
"Hopefully, a good one for the Mountaineers," Huggins said.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.