They're ranked sixth in the latest Associated Press poll. WVU's next opponent, Ole Miss, is ranked 15th by the AP. The teams play tonight at 6:30 CT in Morgantown.
Rebel head coach Andy Kennedy isn't downplaying the "bigness" of this one, which will be televised by ESPN2.
"This is what it's all about," he said as the team prepared for the important road trip to WVU. "We're 15, they're 6, it's on national TV, this is why you come to the SEC and want to be a part of these games. I told our guys that very seldom do you have great opportunities in life. This is a great opportunity and also a tremendous challenge."
The Mountaineers, who beat the Rebels 80-78 last year in Oxford for the only other meeting between the two schools in men's basketball, are 8-0 this season. Some feel they can be a Final Four team. Kennedy said they're the real deal.
"They are legitimately one of the top teams in the country. They have proven that," he said. "They have size, athleticism and strength. They have length, length and more length on that front line. And they have a pretty good coach."
Kennedy served as an assistant coach to Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. During the 2005-06 season, Kennedy was the interim head coach for the Bearcats after Huggins was let go.
Huggins resurfaced at Kansas State as head coach for a year before returning to his alma mater. And now the Mountaineers are making some national noise.
WVU is actually coming off a close 80-78 win at Cleveland State last Saturday. The Mountaineers led by 17 points in each half before the Vikings used full-court pressure to get back into the game.
West Virginia committed 11 of its season-high 17 turnovers in the second half to help with Cleveland State's comeback. The Vikings tied the game with 13.7 seconds left before Da'Sean Butler's driving lay up with 1.2 seconds left won it for the Mountaineers.
Huggins said he warned his team.
"I told them at halftime that (full-court pressure) was coming," he said. "They've done this every game they've got behind. They just played harder than we did. We have worked on press breaker every single day since we started practice."
Huggins was harsh on his squad following the Cleveland State contest.
"This group hasn't played 10 minutes all year – not all five at once," he said. "We've had guys play, don't get me wrong, but not all five at once. I'm embarrassed because I've taken a lot of pride in that my kids really cared. My kids have been hard-playing guys. We haven't always been good, we didn't make shots sometimes, but we always played hard. This team hasn't played hard."
Huggins' team averages 76.4 points per game and allows just 58.0 ppg. The team also out-rebounds foes by a +7.4 margin (36.6-29.3) and boasts a +5.8 turnover margin (commits 12.6, forces 18.4). Butler tops four players in double-figure points with a 16.9 average. Kevin Jones adds 15.5 ppg and a team-high 7.3 rpg, while Devin Ebanks scores 10.8 ppg and Darryl Bryant 10.6.
Kennedy's troops have played hard, especially at the end of some recent games when they got it going. The fourth-year head coach hopes his team simply gives itself a chance to win by playing solid throughout.
"I just want us to play well," he said. "Obviously we want to win. The competitor in you wants to win. There are certain things you can't control. We talk about it all the time. There are constants and there are variables. We can't control some of the things they're going to do. All we can do is control what we know we're about. I want us to play well."
Ole Miss is only the fourth ranked non-conference team to play in Morgantown since 1996. The last time it happened, second-ranked UCLA lost 70-65 three seasons ago.
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