MORGANTOWN - As far as any reasonable expectations are concerned, the main non-conference portion of West Virginia's basketball season has to be deemed a success.After all, with just three holdovers and a group of primarily freshmen and newcomers to work with, the Mountaineers won nine of 12 games against a pretty good schedule. The preseason ended on a down note when WVU lost in overtime in a tournament in Las Vegas, but last Friday's loss was to Baylor, which is now 12-0 and ranked No. 6.Now, though, comes a different kind of challenge. And this one is longer and much more difficult.Tonight begins West Virginia's 18-game Big East schedule. It begins with a 7 p.m. home game against Villanova, a game that will be televised by the Big East Network and available in most of the state on Root Sports.It's the first taste of Big East action for everyone on the roster, save for Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli.Fortunately for the Mountaineers, those 12 warm-up games gave all those fresh faces a chance to acclimate themselves at least somewhat. And so now the hope is that they are no longer freshmen, but perhaps freshmen-plus."We never really gave them that option to start with,'' WVU coach Bob Huggins said of his newcomers being allowed to be freshmen. "They've been in some close games and some big games. We've just got to get them more consistent.''Indeed, inconsistency has been a huge problem for the Mountaineers. Jones, who was named the Big East's player of the week for his performance last week, has been solid as can be and is averaging 21 points and 11.9 rebounds, both tops in the Big East.
Bryant and Kilicli have been somewhat less consistent, although both have had their moments. Bryant was also a Big East player of the week winner earlier this month and Kilicli has had a couple of monster games.But the supporting cast has been wild. Guards Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne have been alternately wonderful and wondrously inconsistent, forward Aaron Brown has been streaky in his shooting and starting forward Keaton Miles still hasn't found his offense.As for the rest, guys like Kevin Noreen and walk-on Paul Williamson have been absolute standouts at times, and not even used at others. Ditto Dominique Rutledge, Pat Forsythe and Tommie McCune, all of whom have been in and out of games and sometimes injured.Now, though, there is no time left for experimentation. Tonight begins the Big East grind against a Villanova team that has had its own share of ups and downs. The Wildcats are 7-5 and just 3-5 in their last eight games.Villanova is always dangerous, though, because the Wildcats can shoot. The play a perimeter game with guards like standouts Maalik Wayns (17.4 points per game) and Dominic Cheek (11.5), but they also have a huge inside presence in 6-foot-10, 250-pound Mouphtaou Yarou."When they've lost they haven't made shots,'' Huggins said. "You can say that about any team in America, but when they make 3s they really spread you and then they can really penetrate.''Tonight's game is the first of a rapid-fire succession to open the conference season. The Mountaineers have just one day off before they have to travel to Seton Hall for a 9 p.m. game Friday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org