At first glance, Marshall might not present the same challenge to West Virginia as recent victors Connecticut and Marquette have. Unlike the Huskies and Golden Eagles, the Thundering Herd isn't ranked amongst the nation's elite. And unlike these past two games, Wednesday night's annual tilt at the Charleston Civic Center won't have any say whatsoever in the Big East standings or seeding for the conference tournament.
That doesn't mean, however, that the Capital Classic is any less important than the losses to UConn or Marquette. With a schedule that is predominantly against Top 25 competition for the rest of the season, the Mountaineers can't afford too many slip ups. Just ask head coach Bob Huggins.
"They're all important," Huggins said on Tuesday before his team departed Morgantown on the short two-and-a-half hour bus ride to Charleston. "There isn't a game on the schedule that isn't important and there isn't a game that we have left that isn't important. If you look at what's good wins, there are good wins and there are bad losses. You can't have bad losses, and you've got to have some good wins. So, they're all important."
The keys for West Virginia on Wednesday night will be the same as they always are anytime a Huggins-coached team takes the court. First, the Mountaineers have to defend the way they are capable of defending. Doing so against an improving Thundering Herd team won't necessarily be a walk in the park. Marshall boasts a roster with plenty of size and offensive ability up front. Huggins is also impressed with the play of freshman point guard Damier Pitts, a Hargrave Military Academy product who was offered by West Virginia before ultimately choosing the Thundering Herd.
"Pitts makes them a lot better because he's really good with the ball and he's really good at creating," Huggins explained. "He's really good at getting their wing guys shots. Their post guys are much better. They rebound it better and they score better inside. They stretch you more because they have the ability to make shots."
The other key for WVU, of course, is rebounding. After being annihilated inside by the massive frontline of UConn last Tuesday, they Mountaineers followed up with another meek effort on the glass against Marquette, despite the fact that the Golden Eagles start four perimeter players and are just as size-deficient as West Virginia.
"I think technique has a lot to do with it," Huggins said of his team's recent rebounding woes. "Again, because we've got those guards hurt, our rotation ends up being a whole lot different. People end up in different positions. We had John Flowers trying to play guard and John has never played guard in his life. You're not as familiar and you're not as comfortable as you would be if you were playing where you'd be.
"We've got to rebound the ball. We've got to get back to being a much better rebounding team at both ends. And, we need to get some easy baskets and figure out a way to get some easy baskets."
After the loss at Marquette, a couple of WVU players – most notably senior guard Alex Ruoff – let loose some mounting frustrations regarding poor performances in games and, according to them, practices as well.
On Tuesday, Huggins clarified that the recent struggles are not for a lack of work ethic on the part of any players, but simply a product of being a young, inexperienced team.
"They're all working hard, believe me," he said. "I think you have a little bit of success sometimes and your attention to detail isn't what it is at other times. It may be more attention to detail than it is working hard. They don't have any choice but to work hard. I don't let them vote on that.
"Our attention to detail – sometimes when you have some success with young guys, it's harder to get them to understand why they have to do things exactly right," Huggins explained. "That's where experience comes in; that's what you learn. The tendency of young guys everywhere is you take more plays off."
West Virginia's eight-man rotation includes three freshmen, with Devin Ebanks and Truck Bryant both taking on starting roles. Coming off the bench are a pair of sophomores, Flowers and Cam Thoroughman, and Kevin Jones, the other freshman.
Ruoff is the lone senior, and forward Da'Sean Butler is a two-year starter. Aside from those two, the Mountaineers are very inexperienced. Against veteran-oriented teams such as UConn and Marquette, it showed.
"It's not like Alex and Da haven't taken plays off – they have," Huggins said. "It's just that I think the younger you are, you're so used to getting by on ability. That's not these three guys, that's every freshman in the country."
So while Marshall might not have the same storied history that accompanies most of WVU's Big East opponents, this game is every bit as important as any other for the young Mountaineers. Huggins expects his players to treat it as such.
"You have to," he said. "We're trying to not just get into the NCAA tournament, but get a decent seed in the NCAA tournament. Every game for us counts and we need to win every game we can possibly win. I don't know why you would play if it doesn't matter."