Bob Huggins' Mountaineers are off to a 2-3 start.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - As a general rule, by the time West Virginia has approached its annual game with Marshall under Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers have already accomplished a lot.They have usually completed a largely successful non-conference schedule, are well into the meat of their conference slate and have the incentive to earn yet another notch in their collective belt where NCAA resumes are concerned.Not so this time. Not on any of those counts.In fact, when the teams meet tonight at the Charleston Civic Center, West Virginia finds itself in almost desperate straits. The Mountaineers don't need a win to pad a resume, they need one just to get a resume started."We need to win games,'' Huggins said rather succinctly. "I don't think there's any doubt about that.''The teams meet at 7:30 p.m., playing at the Civic Center for the 22nd consecutive year. The game will be televised throughout the state on the Capital Classic Network (WOWK in Charleston).Marshall (5-3) has won three in a row, while West Virginia is just 2-3.West Virginia holds a commanding 29-11 lead in the series, 16-5 since it was anchored in Charleston in 1992. The Mountaineers have won 12 of the last 16 and five of the last six, but 11 of the last 14 have been decided by single digits. Two of those games went to overtime.For the first time since 1996 and only the second time since the series moved to Charleston, the game won't be played in the middle of the teams' conference schedules. It was moved from its traditional January spot because WVU couldn't work both it and a previously contracted non-conference game with Purdue into its new Big 12 schedule.
Therein lies one reason the game is so important to West Virginia this time around. It's always significant because of the nature of the rivalry, but in years past the Mountaineers could usually pass it off as just another in a long line of difficult tests.This year it's certainly not the first, but given that West Virginia has yet to begin any sort of a push toward establishing an NCAA tournament resume, time is of the essence. Marshall is just No. 239 in the Rating Percentage Index, but given that WVU's only two wins (Marist and VMI) were against teams ranked No. 250 or worse, the push has to begin somewhere.After this game the Mountaineers play Virginia Tech and Michigan within the following 10 days, and those teams are a combined 14-0. West Virginia can't afford to wait and pin its hopes of a sixth straight NCAA tournament invitation on the Big 12 schedule. It has to start winning games now."They used to say [it was important to play well in] your last 10 games. You haven't heard that in a while,'' Huggins said. "I think they look at how many games you've won against [good opponents]. It's great to play against good competition, but you've got to win some.''Marshall, of course, is in a somewhat similar position, but then again that's almost always the case for the Herd when it comes to playing WVU. Marshall's opportunities for quality wins throughout its schedule are less than that of West Virginia because of the relative strength of Conference USA versus the Big 12, so the game with the Mountaineers is generally more significant to any postseason resume.In order for Marshall to succeed tonight, the Herd might have to lean on its rebounding strength. Marshall is 13th in the country in rebounding and 14th in offensive rebounds. West Virginia is outrebounding its opponents, but that's a figure skewed by the two wins over outclassed opponents.
"They're a terrific rebounding team,'' Huggins said of the Herd. "We haven't outrebounded anyone. We don't even outrebound ourselves in practice.''That could be difficult to do tonight, too, because the Mountaineers might play small if given the opportunity. They have been largely ineffective trying to play big men Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray together, and that also doesn't lend itself to Huggins' desire to play faster.If that's the case, Marshall forward Dennis Tinnon and center Nigel Spikes would have even more of an advantage on the boards. West Virginia could negate that by shooting well, but for the most part that hasn't been the case this season. The Mountaineers are shooting just 41 percent from the floor and 25 percent on 3-pointers.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.