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Soft early slate continues for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There is a very simple reason West Virginia heads into today's home game with Presbyterian with a record that is reversed from what it was four games into last season.

A year ago the Mountaineers started the season 1-3. This year they are 3-1.

"Last year,'' Eron Harris said, "we played a more challenging schedule up to this point.''

See, even the Mountaineers know it. They haven't been fooled into thinking because the record has turned around that the team's fortunes have done the same.

They look at games a year ago against opponents like Gonzaga and Oklahoma and a schedule that didn't even bring them into the Coliseum until the fifth game. They compare that to three home games in the first four this season against the likes of Mount St. Mary's and Georgia Southern and understand that the difference makes, well, a difference.

"We know it's going to get tougher as the season goes on,'' Juwan Staten said.

Well, it's not likely to get significantly tougher today. The Mountaineers face a team in Presbyterian (1-4) that has lost its four games against Division I competition by an average of 21 points. The 1:30 p.m. game at the Coliseum will be televised in the state by West Virginia Media (WOWK).

But while scheduling can certainly be pointed to as perhaps the primary reason West Virginia has reversed its early-season fortunes, it's not the only one. The truth is, the Mountaineers have improved in several of the areas that were a reason for their 13-19 record last year. The primary one is offense.

Even while depending largely on outside shooting - as well as drives to the basket by perimeter players - West Virginia is shooting 51 percent from the field. The Mountaineers are also making 43.5 percent of their 3-point attempts.

A year ago West Virginia shot roughly 10 percentage points worse in both.

"We are a better offensive team, yeah,'' Harris said. "We're shooting the ball, we're running, we're playing together. It's a lot different.'

But while playing better offense is certainly a welcome change, there are also things the Mountaineers aren't doing to the satisfaction of coach Bob Huggins. Defense is chief among those, although rebounding also might eventually become an issue.

"We can't get caught up in being a good offensive team,'' Harris said. "We have to concentrate on being a good defensive team, too.''

On Thursday, West Virginia routed outmanned Georgia Southern 101-68, and offense certainly wasn't an issue. The Mountaineers shot 56 percent in both halves, scored 100 points for the first time since early in Huggins' first season at WVU (2007) and had 24 assists and 41 bench points.

On defense, though, Georgia Southern shot 55.6 percent in the second half after the Mountaineers held the Eagles to 27 percent in the first half.

"We improved in the first half,'' Huggins said. "We didn't guard very well in the second half, but we did play better [than in previous games].''

The Presbyterian team that comes in today has won just once in five games, but unlike Georgia Southern has played a far more competitive schedule. The lone win was 86-76 over Toccoa Falls (Ga.) - the same Christian school Georgia Southern beat 104-50 - but the losses were to Georgia Tech, The Citadel, Wake Forest and Old Dominion. The Blue Hose fell 69-51 at ODU Thursday night.

Jordan Downing, a 6-foot-5 junior who began his career at Davidson, averages 19 points, while 6-4, 220-pound freshman guard Reggie Dillard averages 14.2 points and 6-8, 265-pound junior center William Truss averages a double-double with 10.8 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Today's game, along with the win over Georgia Southern Thursday, is a preliminary to the Cancun Challenge next week. The Mountaineers play their two games in Mexico next week, facing Old Dominion Tuesday and then either Wisconsin or Saint Louis Wednesday.

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

 


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