MORGANTOWN - West Virginia hasn't played Virginia Tech in nine years and the Mountaineers have never faced the Hokies with Bob Huggins in charge.That doesn't mean, however, that Huggins is unfamiliar with the rivalry. Quite the contrary, in fact."When I played here,'' Huggins said Friday, "it was every bit as big a game as Pitt.''Perhaps, but over the course of the most recent meetings between the teams - they played regularly for a few years while both were in the Big East from 2000-03 and met every year from the 1968-69 season until Tech fled to the ACC in 2003 - the series lost some of its luster. Perhaps it was because seldom were both teams good at the same time, or maybe it was just lost in the shuffle of West Virginia's other developing (or longtime) rivalries with teams like Pitt, Syracuse, Connecticut and Louisville.
Whatever the reason, the game didn't pack that much of a punch the last few years it was played. West Virginia won five in a row late in the series and Virginia Tech won three of the last four, but the crowds at the Coliseum were tame, at best. The last time the teams met there, only 7,921 showed up. In Gale Catlett's abysmal last season in 2003, the crowd for a mid-February game was less than 4,000.Well, apparently absence makes the heart grow fonder, at least in terms of fan interest in a rivalry that is about to be rekindled. The teams meet at 4 p.m. today at the Coliseum and the game is officially a sellout.Of course, the fact that the Hokies are unbeaten at 7-0 and one of the surprises of the young college basketball season might have something to do with that. West Virginia is 3-3 going into the game, which will be televised by ESPN2 with Bob Knight in the house doing the color commentary.While Huggins has a bit of experience coaching against the Hokies - he was 3-2 against them while at Cincinnati - his memories of the series are mostly as a player at West Virginia in the mid-1970s. In fact, his best single-game scoring performance came in a 74-73 win over the Hokies at the Coliseum when he was a senior in 1976-77. He made 10 of 12 shots and scored 28 points."I'm very disappointed,'' Huggins joked Friday before practice. "I did two radio interviews in Virginia today on the Virginia Tech-WVU rivalry and not a mention of me busting them for 28. All they wanted to talk about was Jerry [West] and Rod [Hundley] and the games back then.''
Well, there's not likely to be any West-like performances today when the teams meet, but there could be some points put on the board. Virginia Tech brings the nation's No. 3 scoring offense into the game, averaging 86.1 points. The Hokies haven't played a demanding schedule (it ranks No. 290 in the RPI), but their last two wins were impressive, coming over Iowa and otherwise-unbeaten Oklahoma State.Tech has scored 95 or more points three times and 80 or more in all but one game this season and has the No. 2 scorer in the nation in 6-foot-3 senior guard Erick Green (24.9 points per game).How high the score is today, though, is as much dependent upon West Virginia's defense as it is Tech's offense. Or at least Huggins said he hopes that's the case when asked about handling the Hokies' high-scoring offense."Honestly, you can ask them about handling a team that guards like us,'' said Huggins, whose team most recently used its defense to completely take Marshall out of its comfort zone and beat the Herd by 10 Wednesday night. "I think we'll do a better job of guarding them than people have. I think that's what it's going to come down to.''Green isn't Tech's only prolific scorer. Junior forward Jarell Eddie averages 17.1 points and 6-5 guard Robert Brown is at 13.4. West Virginia has only two double-figure scorers and neither Deniz Kilicli nor Juwan Staten averages more than 11.3 points."They have some bigs, but their guards are really good,'' said WVU sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds. "Green can shoot, score, just about everything. And he takes some tough shots.''
Those shots figure to be even tougher today against West Virginia's defense. And, too, the sellout crowd could have an impact. While this is just the second home game for WVU (only two of the Mountaineers' first nine games are at the Coliseum), Tech is playing away from Cassell Coliseum for just the second time this season.Today is also the first game that WVU sophomore Volodymyr Gerun is eligible to play after serving a six-game NCAA suspension. Huggins would not commit to playing the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder, but did admit that he has the potential to help because of his size and ability to shoot the ball better than WVU's other big men.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.