MORGANTOWN - West Virginia came back from the Cancun Challenge in Mexico with a split of two games, but perhaps much more than that.Bob Huggins might disagree, at least publicly. After all, the Mountaineers had a chance to win two games and only won one. A victory over Old Dominion was followed by a close loss to No. 10 Wisconsin."I thought we could win,'' Huggins said Sunday.Still, even in losing West Virginia perhaps gained something. A young team trying to rebuild and find its way back from last year's 13-19 disaster of a season went toe to toe with a Top 10 team. It now has five wins in seven games to start the season. It is developing reliable scorers.And, perhaps most of all, it is gaining confidence and togetherness."We wanted to win and we didn't and that's disappointing,'' sophomore guard Eron Harris said. "But we got out of [the trip] what wanted to get out of it. We got closer as a team and we proved we can play."The Mountaineers (5-2) return to the court tonight with a home game against Loyola of Maryland (4-1) in a 7 p.m. game at the Coliseum. It is the first of four games in 13 days before the schedule eases somewhat with only two games in the next 20 days. Then Big 12 play starts.This stretch of games - it also includes a trip to Missouri, a home game with Gonzaga and the Dec. 14 game with Marshall in Charleston - provides the Mountaineers with a good mix of challenges, from Top 25 teams (No. 11 Gonzaga) to road trips (Missouri) and a rivalry game (Marshall). Tonight, Loyola presents another challenge in a prolific scorer. Senior guard Dylon Cormier is second in the country in scoring, averaging 28.4 points.In other words, these are the types of challenges West Virginia will face all season long. So having gone to Mexico and played down to the wire before losing 70-61 to Wisconsin can't do anything but help.
"It was a learning experience,'' said Harris, himself proving to be a rather prolific scorer while averaging 21.1 points through seven games. "Wisconsin was a big game for a lot of our guys that haven't played that level of competition. ... The next time we play a big team like that, we'll be better prepared.''That's not to say that West Virginia has cured all its ills, of course, Quite the contrary, the Mountaineers still have a lot of work to do.For starters, as sharp as they have been from the field (50.2 percent shooting overall and 44.7 percent on 3-pointers), free throw shooting is a concern. The Mountaineers are making just 64.2 percent from the line and against Wisconsin made just six of 14 attempts while the Badgers were making 15 of 17."That was the difference,'' Huggins said.Rebounding can improve (WVU is being outrebounded slightly, even though several opponents have been walk-overs), and inside scoring hasn't been what Huggins would like. And defense is always a concern for Huggins.Take tonight against Loyola and the high-scoring Cormier, for example.
"We have to be able to guard,'' Huggins said. "We've played against some pretty good players and we have to be able to team guard. When you look at what we have coming down the road, we'd better be able to guard.''Loyola comes into tonight's game having lost a pretty competitive game to No. 13 Connecticut, 76-66. And playing on the road is nothing new for the Greyhounds, whose only home game this season was a 59-52 win over Fairfield. Loyola has road wins over Binghamton (79-74), Cornell (93-89 in overtime) and Maryland-Baltimore County (89-83 in overtime).After tonight's game, West Virginia plays at Missouri Thursday night in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. A week from Tuesday brings Gonzaga to the Coliseum before the game with Marshall a week from Saturday.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.