The New Year aside, West Virginia's basketball team is hoping not to suffer any hangover when the Mountaineers jump back into Big East play tonight.West Virginia (10-4, 1-1 Big East) faces Rutgers (8-6, 0-1) in a 7 p.m. game at the Rutgers Athletic Center. The game will be televised by the Big East Network on Root Sports Pittsburgh.The Mountaineers are still stinging from an ugly 67-48 loss at Seton Hall last Friday in which they played poorly in virtually every phase, failing to defend against easy baskets and shooting abysmally.Worst of all, West Virginia failed to get any kind of decent performance from the only three veterans on the roster - Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli. While some still insist on blaming any WVU shortcomings on a preponderance of freshmen, Huggins can't tolerate that."Let's don't blame it all on youth,'' Huggins said Tuesday before the team left for its second trip to northern New Jersey in less than a week. "Truck was three-for-16 [shooting from the floor], Deniz didn't have one of his better games and Kevin sprained his ankle.''True, but playing in their first Big East road game West Virginia's freshmen did little to pick up the slack, something that will eventually have to change. Huggins noted that tonight's game at The RAC will bring the Mountaineers to the midpoint of the season and that should be enough time for them to acclimate both to college basketball and each other."We're halfway through the season,'' Huggins said. "I would think that if the jelling process isn't complete, we're in trouble.''
Against Rutgers, though, the Mountaineers will face a team in a similar position. The Scarlet Knights' top three scorers are two freshmen guards and a sophomore center. Freshman Eli Carter is averaging 13.5 points and this week was named the Big East's rookie of the week after averaging 27 points, 4.5 assists, four rebounds and three steals in a rather odd pair of results - an 85-83, two-overtime win against then-No. 10 Florida and a 67-65 loss at South Florida on New Year's Day.Freshman guard Myles Mack averages 11 points off the bench for the Knights and 6-8 sophomore Gilvydas Biruta averages 10.9 points. Another freshman, guard Jerome Seagears, leads the team in assists and 6-8 freshman Derrick Randall had 10 rebounds against Florida and 10 points at USF.Still, the best player might be 6-6 junior wing Dane Miller, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists at USF.
"Dane Miller is an elite athlete,'' Huggins said. "He's as good an athlete as there is in the Big East.''Huggins compares the Knights to No. 22 Kansas State, a team the Mountaineers beat in Wichita a month ago to hand the Wildcats what is still their only loss."They play extremely hard,'' Huggins said of Rutgers. "They kind of play like Kansas State. They have good ball pressure, they help on defense and they have a good set of guards.''Huggins said that Jones' ankle is better, but Kilicli is still having problems with a bad hip. The ankle injury to Jones was another contributing factor when the Mountaineers lost at Seton Hall."Anybody who was there saw it,'' Huggins said of the effects of the ankle injury. "He couldn't jump.''
More than anything else, however, Huggins simply wants to see more energy from his team. The Mountaineers gave up almost countless layups and dunks against Seton Hall and that goes back to effort more than anything else."Have you ever seen our team give up that many layups?'' he asked. "We have to do a better job.''After tonight's game, the Mountaineers face another rather daunting task this weekend. On Saturday WVU hosts No. 9 Georgetown in a noon game, and then turns right around for a Monday night trip to No. 8 Connecticut.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org