West Virginia Hosts Northern Kentucky in the Tip-off of the Mountaineers' 2015-16 Basketball Season

West Virginia had a week to study the results of its easy exhibition win over Glenville State, but now it's for real as the Mountaineers face Northern Kentucky in the opener of its 2015-16 college basketball season.

SCOUTING THE NORSE

Senior forward Jalen Billups had an impressive outing in NKU’s 81-76 exhibition win over Ohio Northern. The highly efficient scorer, who shot almost 70% from the field a year ago, tallied 31 points on 12-13 shooting from the field. He added another seven points in eight tries from the free throw line, so the Mountaineers will have to play sound defense against the burly 6-6 power player. Senior guard Tyler White was the only other NKU player in double figures in the win, recording ten. Billups and 6-6 sophomore forward Jordan Garnett are expected to provide the bulk of the rebounding.

The Norse feature a good bit of experience, as they can draw on a returning core of four seniors and a junior. It’s tough to tell just what the NKU rotation will look like in a “real” game, but they did get ten players on the floor for at least 11 minutes each in the Ohio Northern game. That will likely get pared down some on Friday night in the WVU Coliseum.

With nine upperclassmen on the roster, and the experience of playing against WVU last year, it’s unlikely this group will be rattled when facing off against the Mountaineers. Despite that returning experience, however, the Norse were picked dead last in the Horizon Conference, which features stalwarts such as league favorite Valparaiso, Oakland, and Milwaukee.

The Norse are coached by Marshall alumnus John Brannen, who was most recently at Alabama and Virginia Commonwealth. He prefers an up-tempo game that also emphasizes full-court pressure, so the match-up in that area should be an entertaining one to watch. He has a career 1-1 record after serving as the Crimson Tide’s interim head coach in last year’s NIT.

With the firing of previous coach Dave Bezold, WVU also lost a connection to the Norse – one that likely led to the scheduling of this two-game series. Former Mountaineer staffer Kevin Schappell was an assistant at the school where he lettered as a player from 2003-07, but he, along with the rest of the assistants, did not retain their jobs when Brannen was hired.

GAME OUTLOOK

As with a handful of many early season games, the emphasis isn't so much on match-ups and scouting reports of the opposition as it is to discovering strengths, identifying and correcting weaknesses, and preparing for conference play. Still, these non-conference bouts are important, as WVU needs to pile up wins early to banks against the tougher slate of foes to come, both in and out of the league. With 13 out of conference games, including tough contests against Virginia, Florida, either Cal or San Diego State and an always-challenging visit to the dungeon of an arena at Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers can't afford to give away a game it should win. The Mountaineers probably need to get ten wins in its 13 non-Big 12 games to avoid putting itself behind the 8-ball in the fight for NCAA Tournament positioning.

Still, there are some battles to watch in this game. It will be important for WVU's post players, most notably Devin Williams and Elijah Macon, to establish themselves as dominant forces, and continue to improve on the progress they made a year ago. Perhaps most importantly, they need to become more consistent defenders. Williams, who isn't a shot blocker, must work on better positioning to keep the ball out of the hands of his opponent, while Macon can't be so enamored with shot blocking that he removes himself from the rebounding equation. Their play, along with the health and recovery of Brandon Watkins , will determine whether or not the latter plays in the second semester this year.

West Virginia reportedly did well in its quest to avoid fouling in its closed scrimmage game against Temple, and continued on that trajectory in the first half of the Glenville State exhibition game. For the most part, the Mountaineers moved their feet well, defended with good positioning and didn't reach. On the down side, though, the Pioneers did get a number of open looks early in possessions, and converted enough of them to make this a cause for concern entering this year. The 30-second shot clock will have most teams pushing the ball up the floor with a bit more urgency this year, which will, in turn, put them in better position to take advantage if WVU doesn't get back well and pick up in half court. If the early foes are successful at it, then Big 12 teams are very likely to make this a point of emphasis against WVU.

PRESS POINTS

Entering his ninth season at West Virginia, Bob Huggins has now coached the Mountaineer men’s' hoops team longer than all but two other individuals. Can you name them? Answer at the end of this column, and stay off the Internet and out of the media guide while you formulate your answer.

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In his 33 seasons as a head coach, Huggins has been named his conference's coach of the year 11 times. He has also won six national coach of the year awards.

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A win would give WVU its 500th all-time victory at the Coliseum. Against just 148 defeats, that puts the Mountaineers' win percentage in the building over 77%.

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The Norse are making a step up in competition this season as they move into the Horizon League for the 2015-16 season. Last year NKU competed in the Atlantic Sun. That completes a transition from Division II, which NKU has traveled in solid fashion.

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TRIVIA ANSWER: Of the two, one name is easy to come up with. Gale Catlett coached 24 seasons – the longest run of anyone in the head spot. The other is Francis Stadsvold, who led the hoop program for 14 years from 1920-33.


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