Mountaineers open basketball season tonight vs. Oral Roberts
MORGANTOWN - A week after suffering a rather humbling defeat at the hands of a Division II team in an exhibition game, West Virginia's young and rebuilding basketball team opens the season tonight with an even stiffer challenge.
Oral Roberts is the opponent in a 9 p.m. game at the Coliseum, and the Golden Eagles are not exactly your typical mid-major patsy, if there is such a thing anymore.
No, the Mountaineers, with their three experienced players and a cast of otherwise freshmen and newcomers, are facing a team with not five but six returning starters and the preseason favorite in the Summit League.
"They're loaded,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "To me, they're the Oakland of this year. They're a team that cannot only get to the NCAA tournament, but win games when they get there.''
Oakland was the Summit League preseason favorite that WVU faced in last year's season opener. A much more experienced Mountaineer team won that game 95-71.
This stands to be a much more difficult challenge, if not in the quality of the opponent than in how West Virginia stacks up against it.
In a 77-74 loss to Northern Kentucky last week, West Virginia got a combined 46 points from two of its three returning players, Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant. The rest of the Mountaineers, nearly all of them playing their first college game, looked lost.
It will help that tonight WVU will have the services of its third returnee, Deniz Kilicli, who sat out the exhibition game with a sore knee.
"When you have three people who know what they're doing it's obviously better than having two,'' Kilicli said. "But we just have to realize who we are and accept it and work on what we need to work on.''
For the most part, that is simply learning how to play the game at this level. But with so many newcomers, that's not easy.
"When I was a freshman, I had Da'Sean [Butler] and [Wellington Smith] and all those guys. If I didn't know what to do I had plenty of people to ask,'' Kilicli said. "But now we're outnumbered.''
The Mountaineers will certainly be outnumbered in experienced players tonight against Oral Roberts, which was 19-16 last season and has its top seven players back from that team. They aren't just role players, either. Five ORU players were named to the preseason All-Summit League team - two on the first unit and three on the second.
The Golden Eagles were an overwhelming preseason pick to win the Summit League, receiving 27 of 32 first-place votes.
The two players on the preseason all-league first team are forwards Dominique Morrison and Michael Craion, and Craion isn't even one of the five returning starters from last year. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior was the Summit League newcomer of the year in 2009-10 (after coming from junior college) before missing last season with a broken foot.
Morrison is a 6-6, 210-pound senior who scored 19.5 points per game last season.
The other four starters returning are 6-8, 190-pound sophomore forward Steven Roundtree (12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds per game last season), 6-9, 245-pound junior forward Damen Bell-Holter (13.3 points per game) and guards Warren Niles (14.3) and Roderick Pearson (5.6).
ORU would have had even more depth and talent, but senior guard Ken Holdman tore an ACL in the preseason and will likely miss the year.
As for West Virginia, Huggins will likely start Jones, Bryant and Kilicli, but the other two spots remained open going into Thursday's afternoon workout. In the exhibition game, point guard Jabarie Hinds and forward Keaton Miles, both freshmen, were the starters.
But Huggins wouldn't commit to those two as starters against Oral Roberts.
"Every time I think I've got [a starter] he lays an egg in practice,'' Huggins said. "I don't want to jinx anybody.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.