The Mountaineers, losers to Marshall in each of the seasons it reached the NCAA Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in 2005 and '06, respectively, failed to reach the 40 percent mark from the floor in dropping a pair of games to teams that combined for records of 9-19 entering. In a 77-63 win last year, however, WVU hit 52.6 percent from the field in rallying from a five-point halftime deficit to outscore the Herd 56-37 in the latter 20 minutes. Under first-year head coach Bob Huggins, those shooting adages don't necessarily correlate directly to wins and losses.
While West Virginia (14-4) would certainly like to make 50 percent of its shots, the newfound focus on defense and rebounding ability gives it additional ways to win games. Versus South Florida, WVU hit just 29.6 percent of its shots in the first half, yet led 26-25 because of its defense. It was tied 29-29 against St. John's at the break, only to blow the game open midway through the second half by limiting the Red Storm to a three-plus minute scoreless streak. It has been a rather routine style used, and it could prove especially effective in the Charleston Civic Center, where the Mountaineers have failed to shoot well consistently.
"Under (former head coach John) Beilein, if we didn't shoot the ball well, any team could hang with us," point guard Darris Nichols said. "Now we can rely on our defense to blow things up and get back in games. I really didn't think we would shoot the ball as well as we did last year because there is more freedom in the offense, and there are some guys who don't know how to play in that freedom yet. It throws off the offense some. But we have other ways to win."
West Virginia is allowing foes to shoot just 39.7 percent (378-953) from the field in holding them to an average of 60 points per game. Marshall (10-6) is hitting at a 43.1 percent clip for a mean of 68 points per outing; It allows 44.3 percent and 64 points. The Mountaineers are even in rebounding in conference, with a slim margin of plus-two per game overall. MU has a plus-2.5 mark in all games. The Herd, like most teams, is taller than WVU, and thus could get decent inside looks pending its offensive efficiency and ability to exploit match-ups should power forward Joe Alexander miss a second consecutive game because of an aggravated groin injury suffered on a dunk attempt against St. John's.
If Alexander does not play, Huggins will again split the added time between John Flowers and Wellington Smith, two athletic players who lack the game experience of Alexander. Both are solid rebounders, however, and can slide into a variety of uses on defense, meaning Marshall might not get much of a break even with a forward tandem that averages 6-9 and 238 pounds. WVU must get into passing lanes and cause disruption of sets, then lean on its ability to shut down players individually and body up. The contest, as always, is expected to be very physical, with hard fouls and the usual assortment of holds, slaps, grabs and contact, inside and out. That would seem, again, to play to the Mountaineers new style better than its old.
"You have to play strong," said sophomore forward Da'Sean Butler, who admitted he wasn't ready for the intensity last season. "They play very tough and physical, especially in this game, because they don't want to look bad in front of the state. This is their game. It was kind of shocking. I didn't think it was going to be like that. It was kind of fun to look back on it after it was over. It was good to win the game. So many people watch that and expect both teams to put on a show and play hard."
Nichols said he would take younger players aside and tell them what to expect in terms of game play and atmosphere.
"I like our chances better they way we play now," he said. "But you hear people say they don't care if you win any others if you win the Marshall and Pitt games. For a time, I believed it. But we lost to them my first two years (and were fine). You treat it like another game."