Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) throws down a dunk against Western Michigan during a game earlier this season.
MORGANTOWN -- When West Virginia and Michigan agreed to play this season in a made-for-TV game at Brooklyn's new Barclays Center, it seemed to have all the elements of a terrific matchup with an intriguing plot line.That plot line is, of course, still there. West Virginia's last two ultra-successful coaches will match wits - current Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins, he of the 714 career victories, and his predecessor, John Beilein, who rebuilt the WVU program before moving on to Michigan.The terrific matchup on the court? Well, that remains to be seen. Judging by the way the season has played out so far, it's more of a mismatch than a great matchup, at least on paper. That was made even more so Friday when junior center Aaric Murray did not make the trip to New York for unknown reasons."Obviously, we thought that at this time we were going to be better than what we've been. I think everybody felt that,'' Huggins said. "I think people thought it would be a marquee national game and we haven't held up our end of the bargain.''Still, the game goes on and anything can happen. The two teams meet at 8 p.m. today at that shiny new facility and it will be telecast on ESPN.While West Virginia (4-4) has struggled mightily this season, Michigan has had no such troubles. Beilein's team is a perfect 10-0 and ranked No. 3 in both major polls. The Wolverines haven't even had many close calls, despite playing what the Rating Percentage Index currently calls the No. 19 schedule in the country. The closest was a five-point win over Pitt at Madison Square Garden, and the only other single-digit wins were over then-No. 18 North Carolina State and Bradley.Michigan's average margin of victory is more than 21 points.
All of which has created a rather odd circumstance for Beilein. In his 35 years of coaching, his teams were generally considered overachievers. Even in his five years at West Virginia, the Mountaineers were seldom the big kids on the block, usually winning their biggest games as decided underdogs. Ditto his first five seasons at Michigan.This year, that's not the case. That 10-0 record and No. 3 ranking - No. 2 in the RPI - assures that."It is different,'' Beilein said. "I've always been very comfortable in the underdog role.''Still, the team that West Virginia will face tonight is not exactly a seasoned, been-through-it-all group. In fact, five of the nine players that Beilein seems to have settled on for now in his rotation are true freshmen - two starters and three of the primary four off the bench.
So there remains a great deal of teaching and refinement to be done if Michigan is going to continue its success."We've played five freshmen, more than any team in the country. And it's very rare for those type of young men to be able to sustain success,'' Beilein said. "We're trying every day to continue to get them to understand prosperity and continue to get better.''Of course, Michigan does rely heavily on a pair of relative veterans. Sophomore Trey Burke (17.1 points, 5.1 assists per game) is one of the best point guards in the country and 6-foot-6, 205-pound guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.8 points) does a little bit of everything. The Wolverines also have a pair of burly big men in 6-8, 250-pound starter Jordan Morgan and 6-10, 250-pound reserve Jon Horford.But a lot of the scoring comes from newcomers. Nik Stauskas, a 6-6, 190- pound Canadian guard, averages 13.5 points and is a deadly 3-point shooter, making 58.7 percent. Glenn Robinson III, a 6-6, 210-pounder, averages 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds.
All in all, Michigan has just about everything and has depth, too. Mitch McGary is another in the mold of Morgan and Horford at 6-10, 250 pounds, while Spike Albrecht gives Burke a breather at point. And 6-5 Caris LeVert is working his way in after breaking his redshirt four games ago and provides defensive length. All three are freshmen.With all of that, it's little wonder Michigan is ranked so highly, but Beilein cautions not to get carried away with early season hype and predictions."I don't think that I'm uncomfortable with any of the preseason, preconference type of gossip about who's the best. But that's got to be determined down the road,'' Beilein said. "You can't always get there, but we always want to be Top 20, Top 30, Top 40 somewhere when we get into March. That means you get to play in the NCAA tournament and if the ball bounces your way, these kids can fulfill their dreams."I'm comfortable with our mission and the process will take care of itself. I don't give a hoot about how [good] people think we are.''West Virginia, meanwhile, has no such burden of high hopes these days, not after starting 4-4 and losing Tuesday at Duquesne, blowing a 15-point lead."They're all important for us now,'' Huggins said. "We're sitting here with four losses in eight games and every game becomes critical for us if we want to continue to play in the NCAA tournament.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1