Remember the days when West Virginia would square off against an outmanned opponent like Latvia Select in its annual preseason game at the Coliseum? The team would show up, collect a small fee for their services, and then proceed to take a 50-point beating at the hands of the Mountaineers.
In recent years, though, the NCAA has passed legislation allowing Division I teams to play their annual public exhibition games against lower-tiered schools. For the second straight year, Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers will face off against Mountain State University. Tipoff is scheduled for 1:00 on Saturday afternoon inside the Coliseum.
"The benefit of playing (the Cougars) is that you don't have to bring somebody in and beat them 102-47," Huggins said. "They gave us a great game last year. I thought it was a great game and it did us a lot of good. I think it did them a lot of good. It was, whatever, a seven-point game with four or five minutes to go.
"When it's not a good game, and it's not competitive, you get careless," Huggins continued. "You don't do the things that you need to do. This forces us to do the right things."
The Cougars, under the direction of head coach Bob Bolen, have quietly turned into one of the winningest collegiate programs of any sport in West Virginia. In 2004, Bolen and company won the NAIA national title. Last season, they again made it to the championship game before bowing out.
If last year is any indication, MSU will give West Virginia all it can handle. And given the current state of Huggins's team, a healthy, competitive game might be just what the doctor ordered.
This past weekend, the Mountaineers scrimmaged another Division I foe with mixed results. The biggest problem, Huggins noted, was simply not having enough time to go over everything he needed to in the practices leading up to the scrimmage.
"They do well with what you've really spent time on and they don't on things you haven't spent time on," he said. "It's early. It's hard to get everything in. There are a lot of things that we have left to do. We did a really poor job on out of bounds plays but all we did is walk through it once. Our transition defense wasn't very good but we haven't spent a whole lot of time on it.
"If we don't have good transition defense on Saturday, it could be a long night for us," continued the former WVU guard. "We're going to have to get back because (the Cougars) do a great job of pushing the ball down the floor. We just have to have time to get to everything."
When asked about a possible starting lineup for Saturday, Huggins cracked a smile and admitted he was open to suggestions from the assembled media.
In all seriousness, only guards Joe Mazzulla and Alex Ruoff and forward Da'Sean Butler can be deemed likely starters at this point. Players such as John Flowers, Wellington Smith and Dee Proby could potentially start alongside West Virginia's veteran trio.
"I think a lot of it that goes into it is that I can't put some guys on the floor at the same time to start the game because we only have so many guys at one position," Huggins explained. " For instance, I probably couldn't start Truck (Bryant) and Joe Mazzulla because if Truck gets three fouls and Joe gets tired, then where do you turn? It's more, I think, than trying to put your five best guys out there. It's about winning games."
Which makes opportunities such as the closed scrimmage and this weekend's game against Mountain State even more important both for the players and the coaches. With a regular-season schedule that is significantly better than that of a year ago, the Mountaineers won't be able to experiment much if any once the season tips against Elon on November 15.
"We just have to find the right combination," Huggins said. "Because we have to play so hard, I think we're going to have to rely on our bench. You have to be able to sub for somebody that can do the same kinds of things they can do. Otherwise, you hurt the effectiveness of your team."
The most noticeable rule change for 2008-09 will be a deeper three-point arc. In the summer of 2007, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee voted to move the line back. The line will now stand 20 feet, nine inches away from the goal.
Huggins said that, while the line might take some getting used to at first, the long-term effect of the new distance will be minimal.
"I think that because there are two lines out there, sometimes guys get behind the wrong line," he said. "I don't think it's going to have that much of an effect. Seemingly, people kind of look at the line. I know in the scrimmage, we did and they did. We both looked at the wrong line. It just takes some time to get used to it.
"I don't think it affects any of (the players) honestly," he continued. "We've shot it pretty good in practice. We didn't shoot it very well in the scrimmage, but we have shot it well in practice."