'A Great Opportunity'

A win over UCLA on Saturday would give an enormous boost to West Virginia's NCAA Tournament chances. Beating the Bruins, though, is easier said than done.

Not to overstate or go off on a hyperbole-laden tangent, but Saturday's home game against UCLA could possibly be the biggest home game of the John Beilein era. Yes, the Mountaineers have had plenty of big home games in the Big East. None of those games in the past, though, could have as much riding on it as Saturday's tilt with the Bruins. The game will tip at 1:00 EST on CBS with Tim Brando calling the play-by-play and former Ohio State standout Clark Kellogg providing the color commentary.

How big is Saturday's game? There are already tents pitched outside the student gate, and approximately one dozen students are sitting inside the breezeway playing Guitar Hero and preparing to spend the night.

"It's absolutely terrific," West Virginia head coach John Beilein said of those students who are already in line for the game. "I have a sneaking suspicion that they'll see me in the morning. It's great that we have kids spending the night, and I'm glad that we can bring this type of event to the University.

"We have boosters, ex-players, and people coming in from all over. I had somebody call me yesterday -- somebody that I don't really know -- asking me for two tickets. I said that I didn't."

Saturday's game will mark the first time that UCLA has visited Morgantown in the series between the two schools. The Mountaineers hold a 2-1 series advantage over the Bruins, including last January's 60-56 victory in Pauley Pavilion. Anytime a team with the history of UCLA comes to town, it's going to be a big deal. Adding even more to the game is the fact that a win would likely put West Virginia in great shape to make the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins, ranked second in the polls and first in the RPI, certainly give a big boost to WVU's strength of schedule.

"It's a great opportunity," Beilein acknowledged. "I remember being in leagues where, at this time (of the year), your only way to get to the NCAA Tournament was to win your league's tournament. Now we have a chance to play the top team in the country, according to some people, and the number one RPI team in the country. It's pretty good to have that opportunity."

Leading the Bruins will be junior guard Aaron Afflalo. The All-American candidate comes to Morgantown with an average of 17 points per game, and is also known for playing excellent defense. In last year's game against West Virginia, Afflalo managed just four points on 1-9 shooting. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, Beilein doesn't anticipate a similar performance this season from the Bruin standout.

"He's a terrific player," Beilein said of Afflalo. "He had a very unique day last year where he had a bad day from the field against us. That might be one of the only (bad days from the field) that he's ever had. I don't know if we had much to do with it or if it was just one of those days."

West Virginia will again be working with a short bench as freshman point guard Joe Mazzulla continues to recover from a deep thigh bruise. The injury has forced Mazzulla out of action for the past four games, and will again relegate him to the end of the bench on Saturday.

"He couldn't practice today," Beilein noted. "He's still not cleared to practice, so I would assume that he won't be ready for tomorrow's game. It's a deep, deep thigh bruise that's taking a long time to heal. Joe is a strong, well-muscled young man. When it gets into that muscle, it's harder for him to get better than it would be for someone that isn't as strong as him."

The Mountaineers enter Saturday's game on the heels of a 60-47 loss at the hands of Big East rival Pitt on Wednesday night. The Panthers are very similar to the Bruins in their style of play, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that UCLA head coach Ben Howland came to Westwood after a stint as the Panthers' head coach. While both teams are among the best in the country, Beilein feels that playing them in consecutive outings is a positive for his team.

"I think that if you could have a scenario to play Pitt, and then play UCLA, you'd like to put them back to back like this so that you get another try (at knocking off a top team). We've learned so much in the past 48 hours about our team, what our coaches have to do, and what everybody has to do. It's really a unique situation to play two similar teams like this back-to-back."

The game will also mark the final non-conference contest of the season for West Virginia, which holds an 11-1 non-conference record for the year. Playing the game in February as opposed to November or December might actually be better, according to the fifth-year head coach.

"We would not have been ready to play them (in the early part of the season)," admitted Beilein. "As young as they are, they have talent. I'm glad it's not a four-game series, I'll tell you that."

Following tomorrow's game, Beilein may be able to tell everyone a lot more about his young team.


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