Mountaineers at full strength for upcoming tough stretch
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's basketball season is eight games old and inarguably a success to date. The Mountaineers have won six times and, with the exception of an inexplicable collapse at Virginia Tech, have done pretty much everything anyone could have expected.
Now, though, the schedule begins imposing its inevitable will. While at least four of WVU's first eight games could be considered walkovers, perhaps none of the final 23 can be considered such. Even the one seeming weak link remaining, William & Mary, has to date beaten Rutgers and given No. 11 Wichita State a decent run.
It begins tonight when West Virginia (6-2) visits Mizzou Arena for a game with Missouri (7-0). The 7 p.m. game is part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge on ESPN2. After that is a Tuesday home game with No. 19 Gonzaga, the rivalry game with Marshall and a home game with Purdue.
That's a stretch of games to which Bob Huggins seems to be looking forward for a couple of reasons. For starters, he wants to see how those first eight games have matured a young team.
"We had so much youth early on and I think we get better each time out,'' Huggins said Wednesday before leaving for Missouri. "I think our understanding grows with each game and each practice. But we're not near as good as I think we're going to be at the end of the year.''
One of the reasons WVU has so much room for improvement - aside from a roster that shows four newcomers among the nine-man rotation - is the other reason Huggins wants to see how his team fares in the next few games. It's just now that the Mountaineers are getting all nine of those players healthy.
Terry Henderson, expected to be among the team's top scoring threats, missed the opener and has been slowly recovering from a shin problem. Junior college forward Remi Dibo, another potential scorer, had preseason knee surgery and missed three weeks. Backup point guard Gary Browne missed one game and was limited in others by a leg injury.
"We haven't had a full complement of guys there,'' Huggins said. "That's certainly affected Remi [because he was new to the program]. This is the first time we've had them all together.''
It's a good time, too, because the next two games and beyond pose far different challenges. So far, the best team WVU has played was now-No. 8 Wisconsin, but that 70-61 loss was on a neutral court in Mexico. The only true road game the Mountaineers have played was that disaster at Virginia Tech.
"You go into Missouri and they've got the longest home winning streak in the country,'' Huggins said. "Gonzaga has been very good for a long, long time and we haven't played very well against them to this point.''
Indeed, Missouri has won 22 in a row at Mizzou Arena and, no, WVU hasn't been very good against Gonzaga, losing lopsided games in the NCAA tournament to end the 2011-12 season and on the road to start last season.
The first issue, though, is Missouri, which is 7-0 even after losing coach Frank Haith for the first five games of the season because of an NCAA suspension related to his time at Miami. Haith returned for a tournament in Las Vegas last week.
Like West Virginia, Missouri's schedule begins to stiffen now. Saturday the Tigers play UCLA at home.
Missouri hasn't really played a close game this season. The Tigers have a one-two scoring punch of guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, both averaging about 19 points. Clarkson is a transfer from Tulsa.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.