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Early challenges continue

MORGANTOWN - To say that the early part of the season has been a challenge for West Virginia's basketball team would be a bit of an understatement.

The Mountaineers began with a cross-country trip to face nationally ranked Gonzaga, then faced three games in four days in a highly competitive Old Spice Classic in Orlando. They didn't play their first home game until a week ago, which was more than two weeks after the opener.

And along the way WVU lost three of those first four, matching the school's worst start in history.

So, as the Mountaineers wind down a week of practice before Wednesday night's annual battle with Marshall at the Charleston Civic Center, Bob Huggins was asked if perhaps it was good to face all of these struggles early - perhaps as a warning shot to a young team that things aren't going to be easy.

"Well, that's the theory we're hanging onto,'' the West Virginia coach said.

At this point, it's perhaps one of the few positives the Mountaineers can wrap themselves around. And, in all honesty, it's probably true.

Given that West Virginia's roster is made up of mostly freshmen, sophomores and transfers playing their first seasons in Morgantown, there are a lot of things Huggins has to teach this group. And losing, he figures, provides better teaching moments than winning.

He'd still rather win, of course, but when looking for silver linings it's best not to be choosy.

"I do think that sometimes when you don't play anybody and [win], what are you supposed to do?'' said Huggins, whose team has lost three games against quality competition and won in routs over outmanned Marist and Virginia Military. "What are you supposed to do, come out after beating VMI the way we beat VMI and yell and scream about how we didn't do certain things right? I think that does fall on deaf ears.

"That's the advantage of playing people.''

Indeed, after losing a lopsided game in that opener at Gonzaga, there were plenty of teaching moments for Huggins. There were more after close losses to Davidson and Oklahoma in Orlando.

In other words, imagine if West Virginia were shooting 41 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent on 3-pointers and had won four or five games. It would be harder to convince the players that working on offense was important.

Or what if the Mountaineers were shooting just 68.5 percent from the free-throw line and had virtually the same number of turnovers (59) as assists (64). How hard would it be to convince anyone that was worth improving if it hadn't yet cost them a game?

Well, all of those things - and more - have cost the Mountaineers three of their first five games. So there is no trouble with getting them to pay attention.

The trouble is, however, that the early-season woes might not be over. Beginning with Wednesday's game against Marshall, the Mountaineers begin another difficult stretch of four games in 11 days, only one of them at home and without a true patsy in the bunch. Marshall is 5-3 and the Virginia Tech team that comes to a sold-out Coliseum on Saturday is a stunning 7-0. Next week brings a trip to Duquesne (4-3) and then a neutral-court game in Brooklyn with John Beilein's unbeaten and No. 3 Michigan team.

At this point, maybe teaching moments are being outweighed by dispiriting ones. If the Mountaineers fare no better in the next four games than they did in the first four, it could be difficult to regroup for a rugged Big 12 season that begins Jan. 5.

That's not a concern that Huggins deals with, though.

"The theory is it makes you better down the stretch, more prepared,'' Huggins said of playing a difficult early-season schedule. "You just hope that ... sometimes it can screw with guys' confidence a little bit and get in their heads a little bit. You hope that that doesn't happen. I don't think it has.''

BRIEFLY: West Virginia is a long way from releasing a schedule for next season, but it appears that the Mountaineers' early-season tournament will be in Cancun, Mexico. Huggins let that slip when he was talking about the difficulty of this year's schedule.

"It's not any easier next year,'' he said. "It may be harder. I don't know who's in Cancun yet.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1

 


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