“We’re getting better, We're taking baby steps, but we are getting better,” Huggins said, the rare bit of positivity perhaps the result of having three days separating him from the Mountaineers’ 64-57 setback at No. 17 UConn on Monday night.
“It’s hard with seven freshmen and a transfer to run everything you want to run and do the things you want to do. But we’ve made significant progress. We tried to play a pretty tough nonconference schedule to get us ready for the Big East, and I think that’s helped.”
The facts bear out Huggins’ argument. According to RealTimeRPI.com, WVU has faced the third-toughest schedule in the nation thus far this season (behind only fellow Big East members Syracuse and Connecticut).
That’s a significant reason why the Mountaineers (12-5, 3-2) find themselves at No. 15 in the RPI rankings and, with a reasonable conclusion to the regular season, in position to easily earn another at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But only five games into Big East play, Huggins has already been able to tell the competition level has been ratcheted up from the early stages of the season. In fact, while the league may not be as top-heavy with dominant teams as usual, he suggested it could be more balanced than ever.
“There’s no games you can say, ‘OK, we’re going to win this one,’” Huggins said. “You have to play well to be able to win every night out. That’s just about everybody. I haven’t watched Syracuse yet for obvious reasons: I have a hard enough time sleeping the way it is. But other than Syracuse, just about anybody can beat anybody on any given night.”
Case in point: West Virginia’s next opponent.
Rutgers (10-7, 2-2) didn’t look so strong when the two teams met barely a week ago. That Jan. 4 game, which was overshadowed in the Mountain State by the WVU football team’s Discover Orange Bowl win on the same night, was a rare road blowout in the Big East, with the Mountaineers coming out 85-64 winners.
But since then, the Scarlet Knights, led by second-year coach Mike Rice, beat UConn 67-60 before traveling to the Petersen Events Center and throttling a suddenly-reeling Pittsburgh team 62-39 on Wednesday night.
“Rutgers obviously has played extremely well since they played us, and Mike has done a fantastic job,” Huggins said. “They compete so hard. They’re always a really hard game. I’ve got great respect for what Mike has done.
“It was kind of a game that it was really hard to get in any kind of flow,” the veteran WVU coach noted of the first meeting between the two sides. “I think there were 51 fouls. There were so many stoppages that it was hard to get in a flow. Fortunately for us, by that time we had a sizable lead. But they’re talented and Mike really runs good stuff. They’re hard to guard. They do a great job with help defense, and you have to score the ball over them.”
Huggins was asked his thoughts on the play of senior guard Truck Bryant thus far this season. He offered a bit of a hint at what may be the cause of Bryant’s occasionally up-and-down play -- which hit a low spot in Monday’s loss at UConn, with Bryant making only 2 of 13 shots from the field.
“If anything, I think Truck tries too hard sometimes,” Huggins said. “He had a bad shooting performance against UConn and one against Seton Hall where he kind of forced things and didn’t let the game come to him. That’s because he knows how bad we need him to score. And he’s really trying. He’s been a really good leader for us.”
The praise continued for freshman point guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds. Huggins noted the fact that neither had much experience at that position before coming to Morgantown and that each has done a reasonably strong job at adapting quickly.
“It’s really great for those guys to play against each other every day, because they continue to get better,” the head coach said. “Their overall understanding of what’s supposed to happen ... you’re a bad quarterback if you only look at one receiver. You’re a bad point guard if you only look at one guy. I think we continue to get better at that.
“The great thing about it is they’re both great kids. They both want to learn. They’re both very attentive. They pick things up very quickly. For having two freshmen who had never really played the point, they’ve done a really good job for us.”
WVU will face Rutgers at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday at the Coliseum. Fans can have their picture taken with the football team’s Orange Bowl trophy at the Green Gate of the arena between 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.