MORGANTOWN - As far as both the tangible and intangible are concerned, West Virginia's basketball team has a lot more at stake in the next two days than mere personal milestones.The Mountaineers play Missouri State tonight and No. 6 Baylor Friday in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, and a couple of wins or even a split of the games would not only improve the team's resume but also give it a bit of momentum heading into Big East Conference play.Still, there is one other item of note hanging in the balance as West Virginia makes the trip to Sin City for a pair of games at the Orleans Arena: Bob Huggins is one win shy of a nice, round 700 for his career.Not that it matters much to the WVU coach, but to his players it would be nice to gift-wrap that and get it out of the way.
"It's special,'' said forward Kevin Jones, WVU's leading scorer and rebounder, who would no doubt be a big part of any wins this week. "He was the main reason why I came to this university. To see him reach that milestone will be great. And to be here when it happens is a great experience for me. Hopefully we can get it for us [tonight].''West Virginia's first chance at a fifth straight win and the milestone for Huggins comes at 8 p.m. (EST) today when the Mountaineers (8-2) face Missouri State (7-3). The only live television coverage of the game is on the Internet at ESPN3.com.On Friday night comes West Virginia's toughest test of the season so far. That 9 p.m. game against unbeaten Baylor (10-0) will be televised by ESPN.Huggins, of course, is fairly unimpressed by his march to 700 career wins, even if he will become only the 20th Division I coach ever to reach the number. He ranks fourth on the list of wins among active coaches, trailing only Mike Krzyzewski and two other Big East coaches - Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun."Well, I've done this for 30 years,'' Huggins said. "If you've done this for 30 years, you probably should have won some games. Otherwise you'd be selling insurance.''
Conventional wisdom has it that the Mountaineers' best chance to get that win is the first one. Missouri State has not played a terribly challenging schedule and lost three in a row during its toughest stretch. After beating Tulsa at home in overtime, the Bears lost on the road at Oral Roberts and New Mexico and at home to Oklahoma State.Missouri State - formerly Southwest Missouri State - has the odd distinction of being a veteran team made up of newcomers. The centerpiece for the defending Missouri Valley Conference champions is 6-foot-6 senior Kyle Weems, the league's preseason player of the year, who averages 14.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and leads the team with 15 3-pointers.But the Bears have also had three players named MVC newcomer of the week this season, all of them veterans of other programs. The second-leading scorer is 6-11, 256-pound senior Caleb Patterson (12.9 points), a transfer from Colorado. The point guard is senior Michael Bizoukas, who is 10th in the country in assist-turnover ratio in his first season after transferring from DePaul.That's not all. Jarmar Gulley and Anthony Downing are junior college transfers who rank third and fourth on the team in scoring.On Friday, West Virginia will face a Baylor team that made a run in the NCAA tournament last season and is one of only six remaining unbeaten teams in the country. Still, Jones warns not to overlook Missouri State, which plays the game efficiently. The Bears rank ninth in the country in fewest turnovers, 14th in assist-turnover ratio, 15th in field goal percentage defense and 39th in scoring defense."I know the game on Friday is the one everybody wants to point to, but we can't overlook Missouri State,'' Jones said. "They are more than capable of beating us.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org