Exhibition, Part Deux

To prevent what would have been a lengthy lull in his team's early-season schedule, WVU head coach Bob Huggins and company will take on another in-state foe when they play the University of Charleston in an exhibition contest on Saturday night.

As the squad tries to prepare for a tough portion of the non-conference schedule -- and the beginning of Big East Conference play -- Huggins wanted his team to get back on the floor to have another chance to improve.

"We're playing Cleveland State in the John McLendon Classic. We're doing that kind of in honor of coach McLendon and it gets us into Cleveland, which hopefully is going to be a good recruiting area for us," said Huggins, talking about the tougher tests to come.

"We're playing Ole Miss, Purdue and Ohio State right in conference time because that's what TV dictated. So instead of having a gap from November 29 until December 9 -- that's not good, so I decided to schedule an exhibition game in there so we can play somebody different."

The opposition for that game will come from the Golden Eagles, who are coached by Greg White. The former head man at Marshall returned to the state's capital city seven years ago for his second stint on the banks of the Kanawha River.

Huggins said his relationship with White goes back a long way, which helped the exhibition contest come together.

"I think I met Greg when I was a senior here in college at the old (Morgantown) Touchdown Club banquet," Huggins recalled. "Greg was the state high school player of the year, and I was fortunate enough to be the (college) most valuable player."

"We sat together at the dais and have remained in contact ever since then. When you're from West Virginia and you're in college coaching, I think all of us know each other for sure and you have a tendency to spend time with guys like that."

The exhibition contest against UC will give freshman forward Deniz Kilicli his second (and final) opportunity to play with his Mountaineer teammates until he first becomes eligible to play in a Feb. 3 contest against Pitt.

"It's hard to practice every day and not play and know you're not going to play until Feb. 3," Huggins said of Kilicli, who has been held out of the first 20 regulation games of the season to restore his amateur status in the eyes of the NCAA.

"It's going to give him an opportunity to play and hopefully he'll feel a little bit more at ease. I think it's more (important) for his psyche right now."

Bob Huggins

The contest also gives point guard Joe Mazzulla another opportunity to test his surgically-repaired shoulder in game situations.

Huggins said that the majority of Mazzulla's issues at this point have nothing to do with the shoulder -- rather, they are the by-product of his lengthy lay-off.

"He's been out probably more than a full year," Huggins said of his junior point guard. "Tuesday was the first practice that he practiced the whole time."

"I think a large part of Joe's inabilities right now is just because of lack of conditioning. There was such a long time that he wasn't allowed to do anything out of fear of moving the bone in his shoulder that they screwed together. It's been a long time for him from a conditioning standpoint."

In some ways, the head coach said he believes that the year Mazzulla has had to live with a weakened left arm has made him a better player than he would have been otherwise.

"I told him after his sophomore year that maybe a start would be trying to open a refrigerator door with his right arm without getting a pop out of it," Huggins joked. "He was so left arm dominant."

"Not being able to use that left hand has made him so much better with his right. You can see he passes now with his right hand, which he couldn't do before. He handles it now with his right hand, which he couldn't do before. And he can shoot it a little bit with his right hand now. I think from that standpoint, it's made him a more complete player."

After claiming the championship of the 76 Classic tournament in Anaheim, Calif., last week, the Mountaineers have had a lengthy break to recuperate and focus on improving in practice.

The team's third-year head coach said there was plenty of work to be done in the latter department, even though West Virginia finds itself at 6-0 at this early stage of the season.

"I didn't think we guarded very well," Huggins said of his team's play in Anaheim. "I thought we were way too man-conscious. We didn't help each other defensively in the way we needed to help each other."

"I thought we rebounded the ball fine offensively, but I didn't think we defensive rebounded the ball as well as we need to. Our shot selection still needs work -- and really our execution offensively. We didn't execute offensively as well as we'd like to. We kind of panicked a bit at the end of the (Texas A&M) game and had some turnovers. Well, I don't know if panicked is the right word, but we got too conservative."

Still, in spite of all of those flaws, the Mountaineers find themselves at No. 1 in the current RPI rankings after remaining undefeated through the nation's toughest schedule to date (as calculated by CollegeRPI.com).

While that is essentially meaningless until the NCAA Selection Committee uses it as a factor in its decisions in where to seed teams for the NCAA Tournament in March, it still is an important barometer -- and one that Huggins keeps track of.

"This team wanted challenged and they wanted to play on national TV. There aren't very many major TV games that aren't challenging, unless you've got holdings in the company like I'm betting a couple of those schools do," Huggins quipped.

"The better your team, the better your schedule should be. There's a lot of ways to do it. You can try to figure out mid-major schools -- Cleveland State a year ago is a good example -- that will finish high enough in the RPI to help us. You've just got to stay away from the 300 RPI people, but that's easier said than done."

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