TAMPA, Fla. - Bob Huggins knows how good Mississippi State is. He's studied the Bulldogs and was terribly impressed by their win in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden a week before Thanksgiving.Now the issue is conveying that to his West Virginia players.Why should that be a problem? Well, Mississippi State is 7-1 heading into Saturday night's Big East-SEC challenge matchup with WVU in Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs are also ranked No. 21 and have defeated then-No. 19 Texas A&M and then-No. 15 Arizona.It's that one loss that sticks out, though. Mississippi State's only setback was by 10 points to Akron at Humphrey Coliseum, where West Virginia plays Saturday. That's the same Akron team the Mountaineers pummeled 77-56 Monday at home.
How, then, does Huggins go about convincing a team dominated by freshman - who have never gone through the ups and downs of a college season - that they aren't somewhere in the neighborhood of 31 points better than the Bulldogs, at least based on comparative scores?"Well, [before Thursday's practice] they're getting ready to watch them beat Arizona. I mean, if that doesn't wake you up,'' Huggins said without having to finish the thought. "They just went and beat two ranked teams in New York - a great tournament win for them. They're good. And if our guys don't realize that, they're not going to realize much.''They have also been told one of the extenuating circumstances - or flaws - in that comparative score theory. Akron played West Virginia without suspended point guard Alex Abreu.
"They've been told that, but you know how that is,'' Huggins said, speaking on a conference call before Thursday's practice. "And he does make a big difference. He gives them an offense.''None of that, of course, erases the obvious. When West Virginia (4-1) plays its first true road game of the season in Saturday's 9 p.m. game on ESPNU, it will likely be against the best team the Mountaineers have faced this season. It is certainly the only ranked team to show up on the schedule to date and one of only two on the team's pre-Big East schedule (No. 5 Baylor is the other in a Christmas tournament in Las Vegas)."I think they're really good,'' Huggins said. "They had a great tournament in New York. They beat A&M and Arizona, two ranked teams. Nobody's scored 70 yet against them. They're big - 6-11, 6-10 inside and they bring another 6-9 off the bench. And they're all really, really athletic. Dee Bost is one of the better guards in the SEC. They're good. They're a very talented team.''
There is also the added complication of playing on the road for the first time this season with only three real veterans on the roster. This is actually West Virginia's only game on an opponent's home court until Big East play begins late this month. The only other game that could be considered a road contest is WVU's next after this one - a game against Kansas State in Wichita, about two hours away from KSU's campus.Huggins, though, is trying not to make a big deal of the venue, instead invoking the Norman Dale theory from the movie Hoosiers."I really don't talk to them much about it. Maybe at the first time out I'll have a lot to say,'' Huggins said. "I've always felt like the rims are still 10 feet, the foul line's still 15 feet and those people in the stands haven't blocked a shot or scored a goal yet that I know of. You just go out there and play.''But what the Mountaineers are playing against is pretty good. Mississippi State starts those two bigs - 6-10 Renardo Sidney and 6-11 Arnett Moultrie - along with a 6-8 freshman wing, Rodney Hood. Bost at one guard is the team's leader in points, assists and steals, and the other guard is steady senior Brian Bryant.And they all play defense. The most points MSU has surrendered this season is the 68 Akron scored.
"They've got great athletes,'' Huggins said. "Dee Bost is really a good athlete. [Jalen] Steele [a 6-3 reserve guard] is really a good athlete. Hood's really long. And then when you have [Renardo] Sidney and [Arnett] Moultrie inside, they change shots, they block shots, they do a good job rebounding the ball and try to limit you to one shot.''In other words, Huggins won't try to beat the Bulldogs in the halfcourt if he can avoid it."We've worked hard on trying to up the tempo,'' Huggins said.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org