In upgrading his program's out-of-conference schedule, it is the hope of head coach Bob Huggins that West Virginia will have to fight through a little adversity and be challenged before making its way into Big East play come January.
Saturday's game against Cleveland State certainly fit that bill. After limping through a sloppy first half, West Virginia came alive early in the second half to dispatch of the pesky Vikings by a final of 53-43. Da'Sean Butler scored 18 points to lead the Mountaineers.
"I think that we played with a whole lot more enthusiasm in the second half," Huggins said afterward. "We played with no enthusiasm in the first half."
It showed. Using an aggressive if not harassing full-court defense, Cleveland State forced 11 first-half turnovers by the Mountaineers. The Vikings, fresh off a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer to Horizon League rival Butler on Thursday night, reeled West Virginia in to playing at their preferred pace.
For West Virginia, the absence of starting point guard Joe Mazzulla was quite apparent. Mazzulla suffered what WVU officials are calling a left shoulder contusion in the second half of a win at Ole Miss on Wednesday night. Mazzulla dressed in his warm-ups, but sat at the end of the bench and did not play against the Vikings.
Freshman point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant made his first career start in Mazzulla's absence, but struggled. Bryant was bothered by CSU's full-court pressure for much of the first half, playing just 10 minutes in the opening frame.
Meanwhile, the Vikings built a lead as big as seven points in the first half, albeit without the services of leading scorer J'Nathan Bullock, who picked up a pair of early fouls and played just nine of the first 20 minutes. Cleveland State led 25-21 at the break.
"At halftime, I told them to play harder," Huggins recalled. "I told them to please play harder and maybe pass the ball. We just stood around."
The Mountaineers came out re-energized in the second half, tying the game at 25 on back-to-back layups by Butler and Alex Ruoff. West Virginia took the lead for good at the 17:15 mark on a 3 by Jonnie West.
"We moved the ball better; we got to the ball better," Huggins said of his team's second-half effort. "We blocked 10 shots and the majority of those were in the second half because we got to the ball."
Bryant continued to struggle, and was ultimately pulled for good at the 17:34 mark. He spent the remainder of the game seated between assistant coaches Larry Harrison and Billy Hahn on one end of the WVU bench listening attentively to the staff.
Defensively, West Virginia forced 13 second-half turnovers, ultimately wearing down the undermanned Vikings on both ends of the court.
"They made some adjustments against the press and I thought they did a very good job of breaking it in the second half," said third-year CSU coach Gary Waters, who has spent time in the past as head coach at Rutgers. "Huggins is a good coach and he is going to find a way for things like that not to happen.
"What I didn't like was turning the ball over (13) times in the second half," continued Waters, who is assisted by former University of Charleston head coach Jayson Gee among others. "If you know anything about me, you know I don't like turnovers, so that is disappointing. If you remember the first two plays of the second half, turnovers led to lay-ups, uncontested lay-ups."
With Bryant on the bench and Mazzulla unavailable, Butler and Ruoff spent plenty of time bringing the ball up the court in the second half. While neither is a natural point guard, it is probably a good thing in the long run for both players to at least have some experience doing what they did on Saturday.
"I thought I was going to be able to do it but to tell you the truth I hated it," Ruoff said. "It took me out of the game and took me out of the offense with what they were trying to do. I didn't like it at all; I have a lot more respect for Mazzulla."
Ruoff, who led the Mountaineers in scoring at 15.8 points per game entering Saturday, attempted just four shots on the afternoon, including just one three. Ruoff made two of his four field goal attempts, and also had four rebounds and three assists.
Butler's offense was not affected as much, as the junior from Newark, N.J. finished 7-16 from the field and a perfect 4-4 from the line. Overall, the Mountaineers were 15-21 from the line, a big improvement over recent foul shooting efforts.
Freshman forward Devin Ebanks had the best game of his career, finishing with 10 points and 17 rebounds.
"What I liked the most about Devin today, he screwed up in the game to start with and he didn't run press breaker," Huggins said. "I took him out and when I did he said ‘Coach, you are right. It is my fault.' He didn't go over there and pout. He came back and played."
The Mountaineers return to action on Tuesday night against No. 24 Davidson in the Jimmy V Classic at New York's Madison Square Garden.