West Virginia returns home for the first time in more than two weeks on Saturday afternoon to host Cleveland State. Under the tutelage of former Rutgers head coach Gary Waters, the Vikings come to Morgantown on the heels of a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer to Butler on Thursday night at the Wolstein Center.
Much like Huggins's Mountaineers, CSU's hallmark is playing tough, hard-nosed defense.
"They guard," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said on Friday. "They really guard, play really hard and rebound the ball. They kind of grind it out. They drive it at the basket."
The game against the Vikings is a prime example of Huggins's non-conference scheduling philosophy of playing as many NCAA tournament contenders as he possibly can. Much like future foes Miami (Ohio) and Davidson, Cleveland State will contend for its conference championship and automatic NCAA tournament bid. Several preseason publications tabbed the Vikings as Horizon League favorites.
"They were picked to win their league," Huggins said. "We want to play the best people in whatever league it is, and that helps you a lot. It helps your RPI, your strength of schedule."
A familiar name to those who follow WVU basketball recruiting appears on CSU's roster. Starting point guard Cedric Jackson considered the Mountaineers during his recruitment before ultimately deciding to attend St. John's. Jackson played two seasons for the Red Storm before transferring to Cleveland State.
Another Viking, forward J'Nathan Bullock, might remind observers of Eric Hicks, a standout at Cincinnati under Huggins and Andy Kennedy. At 6-5, Bullock might lack the height of many Big East forwards, but his well-chiseled, 240-pound frame makes him an effective player on the block.
"I don't think he's quite as big as what Eric is, but he's athletic," Huggins noted. "He's aggressive. He really runs. I guess he was a heck of a football player. He likes contact."
Through six games, the Mountaineers are shooting just 58.3 percent from the foul line. Although this has been a sore spot with many fans, Huggins notes that it's important not to beat his team over the head with the stat to the point that it takes away from focusing on other areas of the game.
"We are just going to keep working at it," he said. "We're not going to talk about it constantly, but we're going to keep working at it."
Each WVU player shot approximately 150 free throws during yesterday's practice at the Coliseum, according to Huggins.
The status of starting point guard Joe Mazzulla is apparently very much up in the air for Saturday's game against Cleveland State. Mazzulla injured his shoulder during Wednesday night's big road win at Ole Miss, and despite trying to play through the soreness, was unable to ultimately finish the game.
"He's got a contusion," Huggins said. "I haven't talked to him today. You don't want it to get any worse. I think it kind of depends on where he is. He didn't do anything (Thursday) because the feeling was if he hit it again…"
Complicating matters is the fact that the injury is to Mazzulla's left shoulder and the junior floor general is left handed.
"I don't know how he's gotten in and out of doors or anything with his left hand," Huggins said with a sly grin. "He usually doesn't use the right one for anything. He probably hasn't eaten. It's awful."
Finally, an interesting note in the Cleveland State media guide is too funny not to print. As part of their probation in the late 1980's, the Vikings were temporarily banned from competing in the Mid-Continent Conference in 1988-89. They were still able to play their conference schedule, but each game was technically independent, prompting then-head coach Kevin Mackey to create the Let's Pretend League (LPL).
By season's end, CSU was 11-3 in those games.
On opening night for the 1989-90 season, a banner was raised to the rafters in recognition of the 1988-89 LPL Champions. Mid-Con officials were not amused, and ordered the banner be taken down immediately.