WVU basketball: Mountaineers show promise ahead of Mizzou meeting
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- There are reasons to believe West Virginia's basketball team is on the way to putting things together.
Not just tonight in the Big 12/SEC Challenge against unbeaten Missouri, but beyond that into Big 12 play and later a push for what had been an expected postseason bid before a nine-year streak was interrupted with last season's 13-19 record.
The Mountaineers score more and easier and jump shots go in at a far greater rate than what spectators had gotten used to in the past few years.
Players get along and appreciate a teammate who passes the ball as much as one who runs the floor on offense or defense.
There's visible proof WVU takes lessons from practice, something seen Monday when the same team that was outrebounded 37-27 in a Cancun Classic loss to then-No. 10 Wisconsin turned around and beat up Loyola 62-22 on the boards - the most rebounds in a game since 1991.
"Obviously coming back from Cancun I wasn't very happy with the way we were rebounding the ball," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "We've emphasized it a great deal. I'm still not very happy with what it was."
Perhaps most promising of all is that WVU is getting healthy and confident all at once and at the beginning of the teeth of the non-conference schedule.
The Mountaineers lost Terry Henderson, Gary Browne and Remi Dibo for extended stretches either just before the start of the season or within the first few games, but they've healed, practiced, played and blended themselves into a team that's 6-2 as it plays the Tigers (7-0) at Mizzou Arena.
WVU then hosts Gonzaga on Tuesday, plays Marshall at the Charleston Civic Center Dec. 14 and gets Purdue at home Dec. 22.
Missouri won the Las Vegas Invitational with wins against Gardner Webb, IUPUI, Northwestern and Nevada. Tonight's game, televised on ESPN2, will be Missouri's first since Nov. 29.
"They've got big guards," Huggins said. "They have bigger, more athletic guards than anybody we've played at this point. They're probably the most athletic team we've played to this point and they want to play fast.
"If we don't do a better job blocking out higher and keeping them from pushing us under the basket, it's going to be a long night for us on the glass. And, obviously, we're going to have to make some shots."
The Mountaineers are not unarmed, though. Browne, who injured his right thigh early in the season and missed the Duquesne game and was limited in others, has handled his role as a backup guard. He spells Juwan Staten at point guard and has only seven turnovers while averaging 19 minutes a game, but he's also played with Staten as a shooting guard and shot the ball better than he ever has before in his career (54.8 percent from the floor, 57.1 percent from 3-point range).
Dibo missed three weeks late in the preseason after knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear, but he never missed a game and has played at least 21 minutes in each of the past four games. He's made 8 of 11 3-point shots in the past two.
Henderson's right shin injury kept him out of the season opener against Mount St. Mary's and slowed him in others, but he also played just 10 minutes against Wisconsin even though he was weeks removed from the initial injury.
"He's just so out of rhythm," Huggins said. "He's probably trying too hard. Terry's a great kid, but he's probably trying too hard to get it back. There's nothing like reps. You've got to be comfortable. You've got to feel like you're in the flow. He's been out of the flow."
Henderson scored two and nine points in his first two games and then 16 against Georgia Southern. He scored eight against Presbyterian and 14 against Old Dominion before going scoreless and getting benched against the Badgers.
In WVU's two losses, he's totaled two points and 19 minutes and shot 0-for-5 from the floor and 0-for-4 from 3-point range.
"It hurts not having him out there," Huggins said. "He gives us that other guy, a guy everyone has to guard because he makes shots. He may be our best offensive rebounder. He just gives us another dimension that really we haven't had."
Henderson responded nicely against Loyola with 16 points off the bench. He said his shin was healthy for both games, but his mind was right Monday.
"It's being more aggressive and playing with more confidence, I would say," he said. "I felt the same health-wise in both games, but right now, I feel like I'm peaking."
Henderson was a starter at the outset of his freshman season last year but was eventually sidelined by back problems. He still finished second in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting in conference games and finished averaging 8 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. He's averaging a point more per game this season, but he was struggling with his 3-pointshot before Monday.
Henderson had made 2 of 10 before going 2-for-2 against the Greyhounds. He's 8-for-21 this season.
"If people didn't see Terry last year, people haven't seen the real Terry yet. He's coming along," fellow sophomore Eron Harris said. "He adds another attacking threat, another shooting threat, another guy who gets fouled and knocks down free throws, another veteran, another mind out there who knows the game."