After months of talk, speculation and prognostication, West Virginia will finally get its first taste of what exactly the 2008-09 Big East Conference has to offer today when the Mountaineers take the court at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. for the league lid-lifter against Seton Hall.
Since the conclusion of the 2007-08 postseason virtually everyone from coaches to fans to media types to the players themselves have hailed this year's Big East as perhaps the best collection of college basketball talent ever assembled in one league. It is a league which currently sees half of its 16 programs ranked among the nation's top 25. The Mountaineers are thisclose to being the ninth ranked Big East squad.
Despite all of the hype, however, West Virginia's players say that the ultimate successes or failures of this season's conference journey will come down to the same things it always does.
"When you go into conference, we know what another team does," All the players know the other players and what they like to do. The coaches know the other coaches and their schemes. It's just basically, honestly, the schemes help you for 10-15 points, but after that it's just time to play. The coaches know that and the players know that. It just goes to rebounding the basketball, defending the basketball, and doing the things we need to do."
It all starts with today's trip to the Garden State. Although Seton Hall might not be on par with teams such as Georgetown or Syracuse – arguably the conference favorites after a week or so of league play – any and every road game in this conference is a difficult test to pass.
The Pirates, who lost their league opener at Syracuse on Tuesday night, will welcome back senior center John Garcia. Place Garcia alongside scoring machine Jeremy Hazell and jack-of-all-trades Robert Mitchell, and SHU suddenly has a formidable trio that could give WVU trouble.
And then, there's this little factoid courtesy of senior guard Alex Ruoff.
"They're hard to scout," Ruoff said. "They do a lot of different things. One minute they're pressuring you, the next minute they're off. They all can shoot the ball real well. They are really streak. They're either going to kill you from three or kill themselves. We've just got to come out and guard them like we know we can."
Defense, as always, will be the key for West Virginia. Even if the Mountaineers have trouble scoring, as the undoubtedly will from time to time in the rugged Big East, keeping their opponents from putting the ball through the hoop will naturally keep WVU competitive in games it might not have had a chance to win a few years ago.
"We play defense like we know we can, with intensity and enthusiasm," Ruoff said, revealing WVU's recipe for success. "We're pretty tough to beat when we play our kind of defense. We want to rely on that and not on whether or not they are making shots."
Head coach Bob Huggins has done a commendable job of beefing up the non-conference schedule this season. West Virginia has a pair of wins over Big 10 schools thanks to blowouts over Iowa and Ohio State, the former coming on a neutral court at the Las Vegas Invitational and the latter being a bona fide road victory. The Mountaineers also boast a road win at Ole Miss, though thanks to a slew of injuries it is unlikely that the Rebels will be the NCAA Tournament contender many thought they would be at the beginning of the year.
Even WVU's two losses, to Kentucky in Las Vegas and to Davidson at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City, came to formidable foes. Both Wildcat squads will likely be dancing come March.
Even with the heightened competition level, nothing can replicate the night in, night out battles of Big East play.
"Not really," admitted Butler. "It's a lot more physical (in the Big East). You play a lot of teams, actually every team, that has players (who are) as talented or more talented than you are. (The teams) are stronger, definitely. Everybody is bigger and taller than you. It's just a conference with great players and great athletes with great competition, and that doesn't even mention the great coaches who are in the conference as well."
For the second time in three weeks, West Virginia will take the court with a week of rest under its belt. WVU had a weeklong break between wins over Duquesne and Miami of Ohio. Similarly, the Mountaineers have had a week off following last Saturday's pasting of the Buckeyes.
One of the advantages of having so much time between games is it allows practice time to be devoted not only to scouting and preparing for the upcoming opponent, but fine-tuning West Virginia's game as well.
"You get a lot of work in," said Ruoff. "A lot of practices aren't geared just towards one particular opponent; they are geared more towards getting better. You can pull a lot away from it. It's all about our mindset and whether we come out sluggish or not.
"A couple of days earlier in the week, Tuesday and Wednesday, we were getting better and doing a lot of the drills that we did in the preseason," he continued. "That is definitely going to help us down the road. The past couple of days we've been more geared towards Seton Hall."