Six-foot-8 forward Romero Osby leads Oklahoma in scoring at 12.6 points per game.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - After playing just 12 games in a nearly eight-week span, going through long idle stretches and some head-scratching losses and experimenting with lineups and rotation combinations all along, West Virginia's basketball team is about to settle into more of a normal routine.Well, if this can be called normal. Or routine.The Mountaineers (7-5) open their first season of Big 12 play today with a home game against Oklahoma (9-3) at the Coliseum. The 4 p.m. contest will be televised by the Big 12 Network and shown locally on WQCW.That West Virginia begins its first trip through the Big 12 with a game against a team it already played once in non-conference play is strange enough. The Mountaineers lost 77-70 to Oklahoma on Thanksgiving weekend in the third-place game at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
But the oddities don't stop there. For starters, this begins a conference season like no other that Bob Huggins has been through. It begins at home, but then 11 of the next 19 games are on the road, the shortest trip by far being the last non-conference game at Purdue on Jan. 19. The others are league games in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa, five of them 9 p.m. starts.In other words, travel will be an issue."I really don't know how this all will affect us,'' Huggins said, referring to trips that will have players returning to their homes at 4 a.m. "I've never been through anything like this on a regular basis.''
There's also the element of the unknown as far as opponents are concerned. Huggins coached for a year in the Big 12 and has faced virtually all of the coaches in the league, but his players have little experience."Generally I think [the beginning of conference play] means familiarity, but I don't think this year it does,'' Huggins said, thinking back to WVU's last 17 years in the Big East. "You play Georgetown and you know what you're getting. You play Villanova and you kind of know what you're getting.''You play Iowa State, who knows?But perhaps even more of a question mark concerns not who West Virginia plays, or where, but who will be playing for the Mountaineers. Twelve games into the season, Huggins has yet to pare down his rotation. And he may not.
In the Mountaineers' first 12 games, all 13 scholarship players saw the floor at critical times. Nine of them started and three of those who have not - Gary Browne, Eron Harris and Dominique Rutledge - are playing key roles now.In WVU's most recent game, a 74-67 win over Eastern Kentucky last Sunday, Huggins only used nine players, which is generally a pretty normal number for a rotation. But consider that of the players who sat for the EKU game, Kevin Noreen isn't likely to remain on the bench for long and a few others, like Matt Humphrey and Aaron Brown, could easily find themselves on the floor if Huggins is looking for shooting."I'd like to [settle on a smaller rotation], but I don't know if I can,'' Huggins said. "I didn't play Kevin Noreen for two games [he's played only 22 minutes the last four games after averaging 25 the previous three] and I think everybody agrees he needs to be in the game."And who knows, maybe if we can't make a shot Matt Humphrey can or Aaron Brown can. A.B. was our best outside shooter a year ago.''
The one thing that is sure to return to normal now, though, is the regularity of games. Since opening the season Nov. 12 at Gonzaga, the Mountaineers have gone through stretches of 10, seven and eight days without a game and have played just once in the last two weeks. Conversely, they also had three games in one four-day stretch and four in a 10-day span."We've had so many off days since the season started it's been hard,'' said senior center Deniz Kilicli. "Now it's time to go, but this is where it gets mentally tougher with games and all the travel and classes.''At least for today, though, none of that is a concern. The Mountaineers have had nearly a week off and today face an Oklahoma team still relatively fresh in their minds. The Sooners built a 14-point lead over WVU in that November game, but the game was tied with 61/2 minutes to play.Down the stretch, though, Oklahoma did what the Mountaineers have prepared for in the rematch - took advantage of missed shots on WVU's end and rebounded their own misses at the other."They beat us in transition. I think their last six or seven shots were either in transition or second shots,'' Huggins said. "But the thing is, they don't have to do that to score. They're pretty well rounded.''The balanced Sooners are led in scoring by 6-foot-8, 232-pound forward Romero Osby (12.6 points) and 6-4 senior guard Steven Pledger (11.5). Amath M'Baye, a 6-9 junior, averages 9.8 points and 6-3 freshman guard Buddy Hield averages 8.4.
After today's game, West Virginia is on the road for three of its next four, beginning with one of those 9 p.m. games Wednesday at Texas.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.