WVU basketball: Huggins calls for crowd support
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There are many things at stake tonight when West Virginia plays host to No. 20 Gonzaga, chief among them the mental health of Coach Bob Huggins. He'd like little more than to see the usual show of support for the rare occasions the Mountaineers play a ranked opponent at the Coliseum in non-conference play.
"I need it for my psyche," he said from a blue seat on the baseline Monday afternoon. "I'm tired of walking in here and seeing so many empty seats."
The Bulldogs are just the sixth ranked non-conference team to visit WVU since the start of the 2001-02 season. The average attendance is 13,692 and has ranged from 11,139 to 15,033. WVU's average home attendance this season is 5,789 and two of the crowds for a 5-0 home record have been the smallest since the start of the 2004-05 season.
The 9 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN2, but is also during dead week at WVU and some students are already on their way out of town for the winter break. The school is selling tickets for $10.
It's important to Huggins, not just for the size of the crowd, but for the outcome of the game. He's 37-1 at home in non-conference games and has three of the wins in a five-game winning streak against ranked non-conference teams.
Huggins beat No. 8 Purdue in 2011 (attendance: 14,173), No. 21 Ohio State in 2010 (15,033) and No. 15 Ole Miss in 2009 (11,139). John Beilein's teams beat No. 2 UCLA in 2007 (14,160) and No. 20 George Washington in 2004 (13,956).
The last loss at home to a ranked team in non-conference play was in 2000 when No. 7 Tennessee won before a crowd of 8,243.
"It helps," Huggins said. "When our students are into it, this is a great place. Most teams play better at home, but I think over the years, historically West Virginia has played great in this arena to a large degree because of the fans."
Gonzaga is 8-1 with a loss to Dayton in the Maui Invitational. The Bulldogs thumped WVU twice in the past 21 months, the first a 77-54 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh in the 2011-12 season, and the second an 84-50 win to start the 2012-13 season. That was the worst loss of Huggins' career and the start of the worst season of his career.
These Mountaineers would like to prove things have changed, though the timing is interesting because WVU trailed by 25 points halfway through the second half of Thursday's loss to unbeaten Missouri, which is now ranked No. 24.
"Every game from now on is going to be a tough game," sophomore guard Eron Harris said. "That's what Coach has been stressing. Every game now is a big game, and then we get into the Big 12 season, where every game is a tough game. This is preparation for us proving it to the world, to the nation what we can do. We've got something to prove."
Gonzaga's top three scorers, five starters and seven of the top eight players this season all played in last season's game. The only regular rotation player this season who wasn't on last year's team is Gerard Coleman, a transfer from Providence who had to sit out in 2012-13, but who also scored 30 points for the Friars in an overtime loss to WVU in the 2011-12 season.
He's one of four Gonzaga players scoring in double figures and leading an offense that is No. 1 nationally in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage and No. 6 in scoring (90.4 points per game).
Point guard Kevin Pangos averages 19.8 points and 4.3 assists per game and has made 32 of 64 3-point shots. Forward Sam Dower averages 15.3 points and 7.2 rebounds and is making 62.8 percent of his shots. Guard Gary Bell, Jr., averages 13.8 points and has made 26 of 48 3-point attempts. Coleman averages 11 points.
Coleman is one of three players who give Gonzaga offense off the bench. Drew Barnham averages 6.9 points and shoots 44.4 percent from 3-point range while Kyle Dranginis averages 6.8 points and shoots 47.6 percent from 3-point range.
The Bulldogs make 47.6 percent of their 3-point shots, but are also shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and can play big with the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Dower and 7-1, 295-pound Przemek Karnowski, who averages 8.9 points and 7.6 rebounds and has made 30 of 47 shots this season.
WVU, which has lost its only games this season against teams from the power conferences, has lost 13 straight and 17 of 20 to ranked opponents. The last win against a ranked team was at home against No. 9 Georgetown in January 2012.
"I'm not so much worried about winning and losing," Harris said. "At the end of the game, I want to know I gave it my all and I want my teammates to know they gave it their all. If my teammates give their all and if I do, if we collectively give our all, there's nobody we can't beat.
"If we do what we're supposed to do this game with a packed crowd, hopefully we'll have that the rest of the year."
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, are a different team with only five players from last year's loss and one that picked itself up in the second half against Missouri and cut the lead to six points in the final minute of an 80-71 loss.
"If that was a year ago," Huggins said, "we probably would have lost by 35."
Harris, who himself looks to rebound from a game in which he was 3-for-6 and scored a season-low eight points, leads the team and is second in the Big 12 in scoring at 18.9 per game. Juwan Staten (16.4) is fifth in the Big 12 in scoring and leads in assists (7.22) and minutes (35.33) per game and in assist-turnover ratio (4.64). The Mountaineers are No. 7 nationally in 3-point percentage (44.1) and No. 30 in points per game (83.6).
"We have more guys who can make shots now," Huggins said. "I think what they did to us in Pittsburgh (in 2012) was they did a great job taking away things we really relied on with K.J. They did a great job taking that away, and when other guys don't make shots, it makes it awfully hard. I think we have more people who make shots now than what we've had."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.