The Marshall Plan

For the 36th time, West Virginia and Marshall will tip it off in the annual intrastate rivalry game. For the 17th consecutive season, the game will be played in the Charleston Civic Center.

The Mountaineers (14-4) will in all likelihood again be without the services of junior forward Joe Alexander, the team's leading rebounder (5.8 rpg) and second leading scorer (15.8 ppg) to fellow junior Alex Ruoff (16.1 ppg). Alexander aggravated a pre-existing groin injury while attempting a dunk during last Thursday's win over St. John's at the Coliseum.

Alexander had started 53 consecutive games dating back to last season before missing Sunday's win over South Florida. Although an MRI performed on Monday showed no serious damage, the injury is one which requires lots of rest, thus making Alexander's availability for tonight's game doubtful at best.

"It's kind of a nagging thing," Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins said on Tuesday. "I would assume (Alexander will not play), but I don't know. It depends on how he feels. It's up to (head trainer Randy Meador) and Joe."

If Alexander is unable to go, Huggins would likely start either freshman John Flowers or sophomore Wellington Smith in his place. Flowers made his first career start on Sunday in Tampa, posting five points and four rebounds in the win. The emergence of Flowers and continued development of Smith has been a positive for Huggins and the Mountaineers, but the fact remains that West Virginia's rotation is basically down to seven players in Alexander's absence.

"We're a little banged up," Huggins acknowledged, also sighting the continued recovery of point guard Joe Mazzulla from a thigh bruise, "but I think that everybody is this time of year."

The same can certainly be said for Marshall (10-6) and first-year head coach Donnie Jones. Leading scorer Markell Humphrey sat out Saturday's win over UAB with a hairline fracture in his heel, and is listed as a game-time decision for tonight's contest. In last season's 77-63 West Virginia win, Humphrey led the Thundering Herd with 18 points and seven rebounds.

"He's good, he's really good," Huggins said of the athletic junior. "I've watched him a little bit on film, and he's as good as anybody in college basketball."

If Humphrey does take the court, he and freshman forward Tirrell Baines will team up to form an impressive and athletic one-two punch for Jones. Baines is one of three Marshall players averaging in double-figures, checking in at just under 12 points per game while also leading the team in rebounding.

"He's a good player," Huggins said. "He's active. He rebounds the ball. He can score in the post, or he can step out and make shots. I think he's a really good player. He could play in our league, certainly. Guys like that are good players in any league.

"At one point in time he was averaging almost four offensive rebounds a game," he continued. "That's pretty good no matter who you are, or where you're playing."

As good as Baines and Humphrey are, Huggins is more focused on the play of his team. In recent wins over St. John's and USF, the Mountaineers overcame sloppy starts on both ends of the court to eventually pull away with a pair of Big East wins.

Against Marshall, Huggins is hoping to see more patience from his team early in the game, and better overall execution on offense inside the Charleston Civic Center.

"I don't think we had as much patience probably as what we needed to have," he explained. "We shot it awfully quick (against the Bulls and Red Storm). Later in the games, I think we had more patience and got some better shots.

"I had hoped that we would shoot it better than we've shot it," Huggins continued. "But I think that, in most instances, we've held our own on the glass. And defensively, I think we've played pretty good. We're holding people to 60 points per game, and we ought to be able to score more than 60."

In three of its past four meetings with Marshall, West Virginia has been held below that 60-point plateau. The Mountaineers are averaging just over 80 points per game for the season, but that number has dipped nearly 12 points in conference play.

Of course, conference play statistics have little to no relevance tonight as the Mountaineers take their annual step out of the Big East in mid-January for the Capital Classic.

"They're playing really, really hard," Huggins said. "They are very competitive. They don't do like some people do when things stop going well and not play hard. They're going to go try to rebound the ball. I think he's done a great job. I think Donnie has done a great job."

* * *

Huggins has stated on several occasions that he can take neither credit nor blame for this season's schedule. Obviously, that includes the Marshall game, which just so happens to not only be played in Charleston, but headlines the Capital City in the midst of the state's annual 60-day legislative session.

For his part, Huggins says he doesn't mind the break from conference play in the middle of January. In fact, he hopes late-season non-conference games become more common in Morgantown over the next few years.

"I think, hopefully, we'll get to the point where we play national games this time of year," he said. "Connecticut has Indiana, I think, this weekend. When you get the program up to a national stature, you play big games in the non-conference."

In addition to the UConn-IU tilt, mid-major powers Gonzaga and Memphis will also highlight this weekend's slate of college basketball match-ups. Ironically, the Tigers are rumored to be a possible future opponent for the Mountaineers. No matter if it's Memphis or any other "name" school, though, Huggins feels that an additional non-conference game would not be a threat to the timing of the Marshall game.

"I think you had Marshall and UCLA last year," he recalled, citing a pair of Mountaineer victories. "The conference is going to adjust to national television. National television is good for West Virginia, and good for the conference…I think (the Big East) has built in gaps for national television."

Huggins said he expects the Big East to open play a week earlier next season, which would allow some leeway in late January and February for attractive inter-conference match-ups heading into the NCAA Tournament.

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