In the rough and tumble Big East Conference, winning and surviving are two different animals. Winning, of course, is pretty self-explanatory. Score more points than the other team, win the game. Surviving, though, is a little less concrete.
Take the brutal conference gauntlet recently completed by West Virginia, for example. Between January 6 and February 13, the Mountaineers played the likes of Louisville, Marquette, Pitt and Syracuse on the road, while also hosting Connecticut, the Panthers and Villanova. All of those teams are considered locks for the upcoming NCAA tournament, and all will finish in the top half of the league standings. Over that time, WVU also faced bubble teams such as Georgetown and Providence. It's hard to imagine a tougher stretch in a shorter period of time, even in a conference as deep as talented as the Big East.
While West Virginia didn't win all of those games, it won enough to survive the fracas with its tournament resume still in outstanding shape. That's not to say that they were thrilled about dropping a handful of those games.
"We wanted to win," head coach Bob Huggins said during his Friday teleconference. "I think the reason that we do win is that we go in expecting to win. I thought we had a shot to get Pitt at Pitt. Obviously when Alex and Da'Sean don't play, it's difficult. I thought we practiced well going into Syracuse. We're disappointed that we didn't win those games."
Even so, the Mountaineers took a lot from the stretch aside from wins and losses. Most notably, the play of freshmen forwards Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones has improved steadily since the beginning of conference play. Ebanks, who has posted double-figures scoring in six of the past seven games, emerged as a viable third offensive option behind veterans Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff.
Jones, meanwhile, has steadily improved over the course of the season, with the peak being a 12-point, 10-rebound performance in the win over Notre Dame Wednesday night. He has shown an ability to get offensive rebounds and quickly convert them to second-chance points, and has also proven to be quite capable of knocking down the mid-range jumper on a consistent basis.
"I think they're playing well," Huggins said of his two frontcourt freshmen. "I think playing well builds confidence. I think they know what they're doing now. I think that's the biggest thing. They're not worried about thinking ‘what am I supposed to do, where am I supposed to be?' Now they've become reactive and when that happens, it allows you to play a little bit freer. That builds confidence as well."
With back-to-back wins over Villanova and Notre Dame, West Virginia is 7-6 in the Big East, 18-8 overall. Aside from next week's trip to Cincinnati and the March 7 showdown with Louisville, every game left on the schedule comes against teams positioned well below the Mountaineers in the conference standings. That includes Sunday's game at Rutgers, which has won just one conference game. Huggins was asked how difficult it will be to guard against a letdown in Piscataway.
"I hope not very difficult," he admitted. "We need to go in there and win. We would kind of undue everything we've done the past few games if we didn't go in there and play hard."
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for Rutgers this season has been the play of freshman guard Mike Rosario. The 6-3 combo guard came to RU from Bob Hurley's legendary St. Anthony's High School program in Jersey City, and has lived up to his lofty billing for much of the season. Rosario is the lone Scarlet Knight to boast a scoring average in double figures, leading the way with 17.1 points per game.
"He can really score," Huggins said of the 2008 McDonald's All-American. "He finds ways to score. He shoots the 3 well. He's got a really good floater. He runs through balls, creates some offense from his defense. He is a really good player."
Senior guard Alex Ruoff is winding down an exceptional career in Morgantown both on the court and in the classroom. Athletically, Ruoff has a chance to finish as West Virginia's all-time leader in three-point field goals. With at least seven games left on the schedule, Ruoff needs just 13 more 3's to tie former teammate Kevin Pittsnogle atop the list with 253. He also joined WVU's 1,000 point club earlier this season.
Academically, Ruoff was recently named to the ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District II first team. Last season, the Spring Hill, Fla. native was a third-team Academic All-American. Ruoff has a good chance to at the very least equal that accomplishment this season, and should also be in contention for the Big East Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award. The latter was claimed by former WVU guard Ted Talkington last season.
Huggins, himself a standout player and student at WVU in the late 1970's, can easily empathize with the amount of hard work Ruoff has put in to both his basketball and scholastic careers.
"You've got to do a good job with time management," Huggins explained. "That's the biggest thing. If you have good time management then you can make sure that you get the hours in that you would get if you weren't playing. I think it's really important that when you are in class, you take good notes."