If nothing else, fans of both WVU and Marshall can agree that tonight's Capital Classic at the Charleston Civic Center should be a close game, at least if the history of the series is any indication. Since the annual series moved to Charleston for the 1991-92 season, only five games have been decided by double figures.
In fact, only once since 1998 has the game's final margin been at least ten points, that coming two seasons ago as Frank Young and company used a 56-point second half to pull away from the final Ron Jirsa-coached team to face WVU.
So, why is a series so far apart in wins and losses (West Virginia holds a sizeable 26-10 advantage all-time against its in-state foe) always so close during the game itself?
One reason, at least in the minds of many WVU fans, is that it's "Marshall's Game", meaning that the game will always mean more to the Thundering Herd while WVU has little to gain with a win and everything to lose with a defeat. In all honesty, there is probably a slight bit of truth in that theory, no matter how ethnocentric it might seem.
WVU forward Da'Sean Butler, though, has his own theory.
"They're a very scrappy team," Butler said of the Thundering Herd. "They play hard, they work hard. A lot of times they execute a lot of hard shots. They get a lot of loose balls and scrappy steals. They just play hard.
"We play just as hard as they play, so when we meet, we're trying to out-work each other," he continued.
The end result of two familiar foes playing hard, in this case at least, is often a low-scoring, foul-plagued grind-it-out affair in Charleston.
"I would say that's why there's always foul trouble in that game," Butler surmised. "Everyone is playing so hard and playing for the state that it's such a big thing."
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Of course a game full of fouls wouldn't be anything new to Butler or the Mountaineers. Over the course of his career, the Newark, N.J. native has found himself on the bench from time to time with foul trouble. In WVU's two most recent outings, losses to Connecticut and Marquette, Butler spent much of the game as a spectator for this very reason.
In past seasons, when WVU had a go-to scorer such as Frank Young or Joe Alexander, Butler's production could often be replaced on the court. This year, however, Butler and senior guard Alex Ruoff are the top scoring options for a Mountaineer team that has had trouble scoring without them. Thus, his presence on the floor is a must if West Virginia's offense is to thrive.
"I just need to be more mentally tough and take myself out of situations," Butler said. "I put myself in bad situations with hands on people and things like that. That's just something I need to quit, grow out of and be more mature. I'm still growing."
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Aside from the foul trouble, another reason for WVU's two-game losing streak has been a lack of offensive production. Part of that is obviously a credit to the defensive efforts of Connecticut and Marquette. The Huskies, for example, boast one of the nation's top shot-blockers in Hasheem Thabeet and seldom allow the opposition to get more than one shot per possession thanks to their prowess on the glass. The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, pressured the ball so well against West Virginia that the Mountaineers often had to start their offense some 35 to 40 feet away from the basket.
To counter that, WVU has to take advantage of open looks when it gets them. Recently, that hasn't been the case as the Mountaineers have missed from virtually everywhere on the court, despite running the offense with enough success to free up shots for Butler, Ruoff and freshman guard Truck Bryant, the only three Mountaineers who average in double figures.
"We had the guys that you would want to shoot the ball shooting the ball," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "I think we had looks for the people who you wanted to have looks floor."
Of course points aren't awarded simply for getting open shots. You have to knock them down.
"I don't know how you explain missing two layups," Huggins said. "Those layups at this level should be pretty much a given, shouldn't they? It wasn't like they were challenged (against Marquette). There wasn't a shot blocker around. We weren't throwing it over anybody's hands or anything."
"That's the game," admitted Bryant. "You've got to make open shots when you get them. Unfortunately, we've been missing a lot of open shots. Because of that, we've lost a couple of games."
West Virginia is just 41-126 from the field in its past two games, which equates to a paltry 32.5 percent.