"I was really proud of the way Alex challenged the pressure at Cincinnati," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "He was aggressive and went at it. We need to do that."
Ruoff, a 6-6 guard, is typically manned by the opponents' shooting guard. That player, in Marshall's case the 6-2, 180-pound Mark Dorris, is usually smaller and not as physical as Ruoff. He is also, on average, a lesser defender than the point guard, who is more used to on-the-ball defense. When Nichols was challenged by Marquette's Dominic James, a quick, jitterbug-style of player that creates instantaneous man matchup difficulties, West Virginia went to a two-guard lineup that included reserve point player Joe Mazzulla. But the freshman seems hesitant and unsettled at times, so Beilein has utilized Ruoff as this season's Joe Herber – a larger specimen who can handle the ball and use his body as a shield against smaller players. In both cases, the coach got the ball into the hands of a player adept at driving and creating shots inside who doesn't lack the nerve to challenge foes physically and from just inside the paint with short jumpers.
"I'm really a role player here," said Ruoff, who leads the team with 45 steals, 16 more than the second-place Nichols' 29. "I have to have the confidence to know what I am doing and execute. We have a couple guys who can handle the ball and do different things."
The play of Ruoff and Nichols will be imperative tonight at 8 p.m., when the West Virginia and Marshall meet for the 35th overall time. Though the Herd (7-11, 2-3 C-USA) has a 0.9 ratio on 287 turnovers against 244 assists and has forced just 254 turnovers, they possess the quickness and overall defensive prowess to harass West Virginia up the floor. And while the Mountaineers don't have to simply rely on solid shooting to beat foes as they did last season – WVU has shot 36 and 34 percent, respectively, in losing the last two contests versus Marshall – they will need time to settle into and run the offense to avoid spurts like UC's 14-0 push that got it back into the game after WVU took a 17-point lead early. Ruoff noted that, too, West Virginia is focusing more on defense this season – so tonight's matchup is winnable in more than one fashion – but the sophomore understands that successfully controlling the ball and the tempo of play will loom large.
Any runs made by either team will be magnified by the crowd, and Ruoff and Nichols will have to settle the freshmen and the overall team itself. Nichols, especially, is a player who can take pressure off his mates with a heady game and a mix of dishes and drives to go with a deadly jumper. He and Ruoff are arguably the two finest penetration players for West Virginia, and if the Herd should extend out during the entire defensive sets following its initial press, those abilities – and Joe Alexander's drive-and-dunk – will become foremost in making MU back off or give up points.
"It seems like no matter how much talent one team has, it is always a close game," said Nichols, who has 87 assists and 20 turnovers for a team that has tallied 318 and 201, respectively. "We'll go out and hustle and play hard. That's one thing we always do. All we hear is ‘Beat Marshall.' We have heard it all year."
West Virginia has one victory in the Charleston Civic Center this year, a 71-60 win over North Carolina State that lifted the Mountaineers' all-time record in the arena to 49-18. It handled a scrappy squad in that game, though one that lacked depth and used just six players. Having played there already once, players said, should make it easier against MU. But that did not translate in 2005-06 after West Virginia beat St. Bonavanture 70-55 in December. It lost 59-55 to the Herd less than one month later.