MORGANTOWN - Save for a handful of notable exceptions, West Virginia's trek through uncharted territory and unfamiliar opponents has come to an end. Or has it? Through the Mountaineers' first 13 games, all but a few were unfamiliar. West Virginia has a recent history with Gonzaga, of course, and the 2013-14 Zags looked a lot like those of the past two seasons. But even teams like Marshall, Duquesne and Purdue changed personnel rather dramatically. Same with Virginia Tech, which had some veterans but had lost most of its scoring punch in the form of just one departure. Pretty much everyone else WVU faced in the non-conference portion of the schedule was brand new. Well, today the Mountaineers (8-5) return to relatively familiar territory. This afternoon's 4 p.m. (ET) game with TCU (9-3) at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth (Big 12 Network, locally on WQCW) is the start of the 18-game Big 12 season. It's also the front end of a quick two-game road trip that concludes with a Monday night game at Texas Tech. And after a first-year run through the Big 12 in 2012-13, there is now some familiarity. West Virginia is playing the same nine teams in the same nine arenas (plus return matches with each at the Coliseum), so unlike both last winter and the early part of this season, there's not a lot of mystery surrounding venues or opponents. "Familiarity, I think, is the biggest thing,'' coach Bob Huggins said. "There's more this year than last year.'' Still, today's game with TCU in a way illustrates at least the partial fallacy that exists when assuming that there is now some degree of familiarity. With only a handful of exceptions - preseason league co-favorite Oklahoma State is one - every Big 12 roster has experienced the same thing that WVU's roster went through during the offseason. Changes. "They're definitely better this year than they were last year,'' guard Terry Henderson said of the Horned Frogs. "They have a lot more pieces this year.'' Indeed, this is not the same TCU team that finished 11-21 overall and won just two Big 12 games a season ago (although one was against Kansas and the other Oklahoma). Two of the five starters are freshmen, including developing 6-foot-10 freshman center Karviar Shepherd, and 6-9 junior Amric Fields finally seems healthy after playing only three games a year ago. Guard Kyan Anderson is back and leading the team in scoring (16.5). But the Horned Frogs have also had some unwanted changes. Devonta Abron had turned into a rebounding machine at the end of last season, but then tore an Achilles in August and is sitting out the season. Aaron Durley, a 6-9 redshirt freshman who was a Little League World Series star of some note in 2005 and 2006 because of his size, was also being counted on before he tore an ACL for the second year in a row. Throw in the loss of three other senior starters from last season and, quite frankly, familiarity isn't a word one might associate with TCU. Still, West Virginia's comfort level playing in the league and against the opponents is something that can't hurt. "If nothing else, we're well into the season and we have 12 game tapes to look at and all the games are on TV,'' Huggins said. "So it's not like facing unknown teams.'' West Virginia's perimeter-oriented team could have some trouble dealing with TCU's size. Shepherd is averaging 8.3 points and 8.6 rebounds and 6-6 freshman Brandon Parrish averages 10.3 points. Along with Fields, they could pose a challenge for WVU's freshman-heavy inside game with Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins. "No, it's not the same team. They have guys who can make shots and a couple of guys who can score close,'' Huggins said. "But if there's a good thing about it, those are freshmen and sophomores for them [under the basket]. It's not like playing against juniors and seniors. There's a world of difference in maturity.'' BRIEFLY: West Virginia's free-throw shooting is improving. The Mountaineers have shot less than 70 percent from the line just once in the last six games after dipping below that mark five times in the previous six games. Huggins credits the team's year-old basketball practice facility, where players can come and shoot virtually whenever they want. "I was shocked that we didn't shoot it better than we did [earlier in the season],'' he said. "Having this facility makes a huge difference.''
Following this two-game road trip to start the season, WVU will be home for two on the same Saturday-Monday schedule next week, facing Oklahoma State and then Texas.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1