Big, Balanced Challenge

West Virginia and Georgetown square off in a primetime showdown Saturday night in front of a sold out Coliseum crowd, and national television audience on ESPN.

Heading into tonight's game between the Mountaineers and Hoyas, we certainly know several things about each team.

For starters, we know that West Virginia is very good at home. The Mountaineers have won 15 consecutive games inside the Coliseum, and dating back to the start of the 2005-06 season, are an equally impressive 39-3 under the big cupcake. In nine home wins this season, WVU has an average margin of victory of nearly 30 points (29.8). And to date, no game in Morgantown this year has had nearly as much hype or opportunity as this. The date with the No. 9 Hoyas has been sold out for weeks, and circled on the calendars of Mountaineer fans even longer.

"It's a lot more fun to play in those kind of atmospheres," said Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins. "We're going to be ready to play. I don't think that's going to be an issue."

Of course we also know that Georgetown is likely the most talented team in the Big East Conference, returning a core group of players from last season's Final Four squad despite losing star forward Jeff Green, who left for the NBA a year early and was subsequently drafted No. 5 overall.

If you're looking for star power, the Hoyas certainly have that with 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, a likely first-round pick himself and candidate for player of the year awards at both the conference and national levels. And to call John Thompson III's team a one-trick pony would be a monumental mistake. None of Georgetown's five starters average less than 9.3 points per game.

Simply put, the Hoyas might just be the most balanced team in college basketball. A team this talented, as Huggins noted, can win in even the most rowdy of road environments, which the Coliseum will likely be when the ball is tipped at 7:00.

"I think that teams that talented, wherever they play, expect to win," he said.

Then again, the Mountaineers aren't just going to roll over and play dead. A win over Georgetown would not only give Huggins and company yet another boost to their NCAA Tournament hopes, but put the Blue and Gold in a tie for first place with the powerful Hoyas atop the loaded Big East Conference.

Not that holding such a distinction grants WVU anything other than a pat on the pack and some extra props from the national media.

"I tell them all the time that this is a marathon, not a sprint," Huggins said. "We have a long, long way to go. Everybody keeps thinking that someone is going to separate themselves from the pack. I don't know."

"I've never been in this position before," said senior point guard Darris Nichols, the lone remaining Mountaineer from Georgetown's last visit to the Coliseum, a 68-61 WVU win back in January of 2006. "At the same time, we want to be in this position at the end of the season too.

"You don't want to treat this game any bigger than any other game, even though this would be a good statement game to put us in a tie for first. We just have to come out and try to stay focused."

And find a way to defend the balanced Georgetown attack. Doing so is much easier said than done, simply because there is no true weakness in the Hoya lineup. Do you double down on Hibbert? Do you let the big guy get his, and hope the perimeter players don't beat you?

There is no easy answer to solving the problems presented by Georgetown, as evidenced by the aforementioned top 10 ranking and 15-2 record.

"We really haven't seen them shoot that much off the dribble or anything, but we have to get out and contest all their shots because everybody on the team can shoot it," Nichols said.

"The hardest thing is that it's hard to give help to Hibbert, because they do shoot it so well, and because their spacing is so good," added Huggins. "They get a lot of easy baskets because of that. If you try to help in any one direction, they make you pay. They pass the ball really, really well."

* * *

During last Sunday's win over South Florida, the Mountaineers used 6-2 point guard Joe Mazzulla to defend 6-7 USF center Kentrell Gransberry in the post. Though outmatched in terms of size, Mazzulla held his own against the big Bull. Might a similar attack be deployed against Hibbert, who stands a full foot taller than the West Virginia sophomore?

"I haven't watched too much film on Hibbert, actually," Mazzulla said. "The strategy doesn't change much for me. I have to work as hard as I can to make sure he doesn't catch it if I am guarding him. It doesn't really matter much if he's different from Gransberry; my strategy is still the same."

Huggins was more direct when asked whether or not Mazzulla would be guarding Hibbert.

"No," he said quickly, but with a grin. "I don't think Joe's going to guard him."

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