PC is 11-6 overall and has lost its first four Big East games. But three of the defeats came at the hands of teams in the upper tier of the conference standings -- No. 4 Syracuse, St. John’s and No. 5 Pitt -- by a combined total of 13 points.
“Everybody in this league is [a challenge],” Huggins said. “If you look around the league, Connecticut beat South Florida in overtime at Connecticut. South Florida hasn’t won a game yet in the league.
“This is a league where I think, probably more than any time since I’ve been here, everybody’s capable of beating anybody. Providence is certainly a great example, and South Florida is a great example of that.”
But the Friars’ level of play might be tough to gauge because of their youth. Nine of the 15 players on head coach Keno Davis’s roster are freshmen, and thus, they have been asked to contribute a lot.
Indeed, four of the five Providence starters are either freshmen or sophomores. Sophomore guard Vincent Council averages 15.2 points per game while contributing a team-high 6.8 assists per contest. Freshman guard Gerard Coleman also averages double figures.
But the young players have a veteran leader to rally around in the form of senior Marshon Brooks, whose 23.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game both are key to the Friars’ success. Brooks has scored more than 20 points in 11 consecutive games and has only been held under that number three times all season long.
“He scores a lot of ways,” Huggins said of Brooks. “He’s their second leading offensive rebounder. He’s actually got [43 offensive] rebounds. He’s five behind their center. So he offensive rebounds and he scores off the bounce. He’s their best 3-point shooter. He’s just a really good player.”
But Brooks wasn’t even a starter for Providence a year ago. The improvement has been marked, and Huggins compared the guard to another in the Big East that has garnered national player of the year talk.
“I’m sure he put a lot of time in over the offseason,” Huggins said. “We’ve got two guys in our league, he and [UConn guard] Kemba Walker, that went from being a good player to being a great player. I think it’s pretty well documented the time that he put in over the offseason.”
Obviously, limiting the damage Brooks can do will be key to West Virginia’s success in tonight’s 7:00 p.m. match-up -- the Mountaineers’ first game at the Coliseum since a Dec. 29 loss to St. John’s. But there is one other factor Huggins said will go a long way in determining whether his team moves to 3-2 in league play or falls to 2-3.
“We’ve got to attack their pressure,” the fourth-year head coach said. “They’re going to press pretty much the whole game a couple different ways, and we’ve got to attack their pressure. They’re going to throw two or three different zones at us, and we’ve got to be able to attack their zones.”
WVU announced Wednesday that freshman forward Kevin Noreen is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery on his right knee to heal a ruptured prepatellar bursa, a fluid sac in front of the knee.
“It seemed like the right time to do it,” Huggins said of the surgery, which came Wednesday morning. “He continued to irritate it. It’s just a constant sense of irritation on his knee.”
Huggins, who added he didn’t know how long Noreen had been dealing with the issue, said he wasn’t worried about the loss of the freshman (who had averaged 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds per game) effecting his team’s depth.
But with Noreen out, Huggins’ entire recruiting class of 2010 is now inactive. Noah Cottrill has been indefinitely suspended since October. Darrious Curry was medically disqualified from playing before ever stepping foot onto the practice floor. David Nyarsuk failed to academically qualify.
It’s a situation that even a head coaching veteran of almost three decades like Huggins has never dealt with before.
“None that I can remember,” he said. “We still have a pretty good corps of upperclassmen. We’re going to lose five guys, but you still have Truck [Bryant] and Kevin [Jones], who have been basically three-year starters -- Kev didn’t start as a freshman but he played as many minutes as a stater. I don’t know. We’ll be fine. We’ve just got to do a good job of recruiting. That’s all.”
So is there even more pressure to find a greater number of recruits who can contribute quickly?
“Man, there’s pressure every year,” Huggins said. “If you don’t recruit [well] in this league, you’re not going to be very good. Yeah, we’re going to have to recruit a greater number of guys.”
The Mountaineers’ defense, which had struggled and given up 81 and 79 points in losses to St. John’s and Marquette to start Big East Conference play, has returned to form in the team’s last two games, holding DePaul to 65 points and then-No. 13 Georgetown to 59 points.
Not coincidentally, Huggins’ squad has come out on top in both of those contests.
“We’ve worked really hard on being able to make the rotations,” the head coach said. “I thought our rotations were a whole lot better. We’ve rebounded the ball better. We didn’t give up the second shots we had been. You continue to give people more opportunities, and the chances are a lot higher they’re going to score. And I thought we did a better job [defensively] on the ball.”
But Huggins didn’t exactly see the improvement coming in practices.
“Every day’s a new day, man,” he said, shaking his head. “Some days, we’re pretty good at it, and some days, we aren’t very good. I thought we had really good emotion. I thought we had some bounce in our step. There’s so much to be said for playing with enthusiasm, playing with some emotion, and I thought we did that.”
Casey Mitchell returned to his early-season form in WVU’s win over Georgetown last Saturday, scoring 28 points -- the first time he had tallied more than 18 since the Mountaineers beat American on Dec. 1.
But it wasn’t just the raw number of points that impressed Huggins. It was that the senior guard scored them in such a variety of ways.
“What did he have, four 3s?” Huggins asked, correctly recalling the number. “So he did a lot of other things. I know he got a 3-point play on an offensive rebound. He got a couple 3-point plays taking the ball to the basket.
“That’s the way Casey played earlier in the year. Then, for whatever reason, he kind of hovered around the 3-point line and wasn’t very active. You’ve got to be active to be a good player.”
And Huggins, like most observers, has seen just how much more smoothly West Virginia’s offense has worked when Mitchell is scoring points.
“Obviously, it’s a lot better,” he said.