One of the most deceiving things in sports can be using a given team's win-loss record as the end-all, be-all indicator of how good it is. In the wild, wacky 16-team Big East – particularly this season – that deception is even more prevalent. For an example, look no further than Notre Dame, which visits the Coliseum on Wednesday night with an underwhelming 14-10 record, including a mark of 5-7 in the Big East.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, show 17 wins to just eight losses overall, with an even six up and six down in conference play. Does that mean that WVU will just walkover the Fighting Irish with little to no resistance? Of course not.
"They were top ten to start the season, and they just kind of ran into…I don't know," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins on Tuesday when asked why the Irish, ranked as high as sixth earlier this season, are now fighting for their postseason lives. "I don't know what happened, but they're good. They're talented (Luke) Harangody is the returning player of the year in the league. (Kyle) McAlarney is really good. (Ryan) Ayers really hurt us a year ago. They're good. (Tory) Jackson killed us a year ago. He made two huge threes to really open the game up."
After climbing up the polls in November and December, Notre Dame found the sledding to be quite tough once conference play began to heat up in January. Mike Brey's team lost seven straight at one point, but has seemingly righted the ship over the past week with back-to-back wins over Louisville and South Florida.
Even during the seven-game swoon, which was punctuated by a lopsided loss at UCLA, the Irish played well.
"Our league is just so hard," Huggins continued. "It's so hard. You watch their tapes and I didn't think they played bad. They didn't play bad against Cincinnati. UCLA made every shot to start that game and they were just terrific. They made every shot. (The Fighting Irish) didn't play bad; the other people just played really well."
The toughest matchup for WVU will likely be Harangody, the junior forward who leads the conference in both scoring and rebounding and is a strong contender to keep his Big East hardware from a year ago. While the bulk of Harangody's damage is still done around the basket, the big man has done a good job of expanding his game to include a serviceable jump shot that extends out to 18 feet. And even though most defenses haven't let him catch the ball on the block and dominate like he did last season, he's still found a way to produce plenty of big games.
"He doesn't have to catch it on the low block to score," Huggins said. "As a matter of fact, he probably catches it off the block anymore than he catches it on the block, and he still scores. A lot of guys like him have to stay on the block or around the block. He goes out to 12 or 14 feet and still catches it effectively."
Longtime scribe Mickey Furfari alerted Huggins that Notre Dame is 24-8 all-time against West Virginia, including an 11-1 mark under Brey.
"I have never looked at (the series record)," Huggins admitted. "I know they got us last year, though. We've got some making up to do, don't we?"
The Irish lead the league in both three-point field goals made and three-point field goal percentage. West Virginia, meanwhile, leads the league in guarding against the three as opponents have made just 26 percent of their attempts from downtown against the Mountaineers this season.
When asked why his team was so successful in defending the three-point shot, Huggins opined that it's likely due to the style of defense his team has to depend on, what with their lack of a true interior presence.
"You can play one of two ways," he explained. "You're either getting out and really pressuring and trying to push people out, which we have to do because we're so small inside. Or, if you have some more size inside, you have a tendency to gap things. When you gap things, you get more step-in threes, which is what people make."
Even with the threat of Harangody inside, the Mountaineers aren't likely to make any major changes defensively on Wednesday night.
"We're just going to guard the way that we always guard," Huggins said. "They tried to relieve pressure against us a year ago and tried to backcut us and do some other things that way. I don't know how many changes we can make. We're just going to continue to do what we've been doing defensively. Defense hasn't been our problem."