Saturday's home game for West Virginia might not feature a big-name opponent such as Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt, Connecticut, Villanova or any of the other perennially-tough foes that are part of the Big East slate, but for the Mountaineers, it is arguably the most crucial game of their season to this point. Providence, under the guidance of first-year head coach Keno Davis, comes to the Coliseum with six league wins to its credit. In all likelihood, the Friars and Mountaineers will be among three or four teams looking to earn an eighth or ninth NCAA tournament bid from the conference come March.
Combine that big-picture look with the fact that West Virginia has lost three of its last four, and the importance of Saturday's game – albeit against an unranked opponent – cannot be underscored enough. A loss would not only continue WVU's recent skid, but also give the Friars a little bit of added breathing room in the crowded middle of the Big East pack.
"It is a two-game swing," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "This is probably as important a game for us as we've had all year. We're 4-5 right now and we need to win some games here to get on a roll. We've lost three of our last four, and we need to get on a roll."
The matchup will certainly be a contrast of styles. The Mountaineers, of course, prefer to win with defense and rebounding. By comparison, the Friars have given up at least 90 points in four consecutive games and rank last in the league in field goal percentage defense.
"They're playing a 1-2-2 matchup which I think slows people down a little bit, and they slow people down a little bit with their three-quarter court pressure," Huggins noted.
Offensively, it goes without saying that West Virginia has struggled, particularly since the beginning of Big East play. WVU checks in at 13th out of 16 Big East teams in field goal percentage, and averages 72 points per game, which ranks 10th. The Friars, meanwhile, prefer to get up and down the floor at a frantic pace. PC is averaging 80.2 points per game, second only to Marquette.
"They make shots. They make hard shots, tough shots that most people wouldn't think about making," Huggins said. "They score a lot of points because they make a lot of shots. They shot 40 3s against Villanova. It would be nice to see us a few points. I don't really want to see them score that much."
A year ago, Providence limped to a 15-16 finish, resulting in the dismissal of long-time head coach Tim Welsh. Enter Davis, the 2007-08 National Coach of the Year at Drake, who inherited an experienced team. Adding to that experience was the return of standout guard Sharaud Curry, who missed all but one game last season with an injury.
The presence of Davis, Curry's return and the fact that the rest of the Friars are all a year older and thus more experienced has led to a promising 14-8 start, including a 6-4 record in Big East play.
"I think that not having Curry a year ago – he's pretty good, and those other guys are a year older. They have a lot of experienced guys," Huggins said. "They don't play any new guys. (Marshaun) Brooks is a sophomore, but he played a lot a year ago. He's the youngest guy. The rest of them are all juniors and seniors.
"They're playing really well," he concluded. "You watch their last game, the Villanova game, and Villanova is up 20 but the next thing you know, it's down to seven. Villanova gets up nine inside a minute to go, and then the next thing you know, it's a one-point game. They're just playing terrific I think."
Injured point guard Joe Mazzulla had surgery on Wednesday to repair the growth-plate fracture in his left shoulder that has sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Mazzulla was back at the Coliseum on Friday, which prompted smiles and well-wishes from his teammates and the coaching staff. The Johnston, R.I. native was wearing a sizeable, immobilizing brace on the injured arm. His rehab is expected to last at least six to eight months.