Arguably the biggest concern for head coach Bob Huggins were the Mountaineers themselves, and how they would respond to the four-day “layoff,” one of the longest allowed during Huggins’ three-plus decades as a head coach. Of course, common reasoning allows that it wasn’t a layoff at all, but rather an opportunity for players to spend time with family and friends with the caveat that the proper work be put in.
“They have to get in the gym,” Huggins said before the team broke for the holiday. “Particularly, they have to get shots and run. The way we play, cardio is pretty important. They have to get in the gym and run.”
It appears the warnings were heeded.
“We ran them pretty good two days ago,” Huggins said on Monday. “I was a little concerned they might be sore, but then we may have had one of our better practices (one day later). So whatever they did was effective.”
Which should translate into solid legs for WVU (10-1), as it looks to again control tempo and pace on the road at a sold-out Cassel Coliseum. Virginia Tech (8-4) counters with the inside-out play of forward Zach Delay, a veritable double-double machine, balanced by guard Justin Bibbs, who leads the nation with a blistering 61.5 three-point shooting percentage. Huggins noted that Virginia, the only foe to knock off the No. 19 Mountaineers, was a solid challenge for Devin Williams, and that Williams would again be tested by Delay, who averages 14.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
It is the primary interior battle, and the victor will go a long way to determining an overall winner if the Hokies, in their second season under head coach Buzz Williams, can slow the game and convolute West Virginia’s offense as it did in rallying from 17 points down for an 87-82 win in Cassel in 2014.
“He’s a good player,” Huggins said of Delay. “They’ve done a good job rebounding the ball. And (Bibbs’ shooting) is as good as anybody in the country. We have to do a good job on him. I think Buzz has done a solid job changing defenses and keeping people off balance, and that allows them to win with kids who played really well or them.”
Tech went 11-22 a season ago, 2-16 in the ACC, and lost 18 of the final 21 games starting with an 82-51 defeat in Morgantown. Like this season, West Virginia won 10 of its first 11 in finishing 25-10 and advancing to the Sweet 16. Now, the Hokies have won four of their last five, but have yet to showcase themselves in a marquee match-up. The victories have come against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Radford, Lamar and Grambling State with a loss to St. Joseph’s.
Virginia Tech lost 99-77 against then-No. 4 Iowa State in the Emerald Coast Classic the day after Thanksgiving, and has also lost to Alabama State and Northwestern, the latter in overtime. But there’s little question Tech appears more competitive this season than last, and should bring considerable energy to the contest.
“It’s all about penetrating to the middle as much as you can, penetrate and pitch, drive it at the basket much like he did at Marquette,” Huggins said. “I think like happens lot of times, he came in and Buzz was very demanding — and I think that’s admirable — and there were probably guys who didn’t want to give that much effort or who transferred out. Guy who didn’t like the style of play, and so they’re young. Even his older guys, the majority, are guys who don’t have a lot of years in the bank.”
The program rejuvenation under Williams has, as expected, done the same for the fan base, and it appears West Virginia will face its most difficult environment of the non conference, with the possible exception of the Jan. 30 game at Florida as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
“I’d like to tell you I’m that smart,” Huggins said when asked if he slated the contest this late in the non conference to ready WVU for its opening league games. “We don’t have Pitt or a main rivalry, but I remember how big a rivalry Virginia Tech was back when I was in school. That’s honestly the reason I did it. I want to have somebody our fans related to. We played at noon here a year ago and had 13,000. They just sold it out at their place.”