Capital Offense

The New Year has not been kind to the WVU men's basketball team thus far, as the No. 11 Mountaineers have found defeat three times in five tries to start 2010. The squad will attempt to regroup this week, breaking from Big East play with a pair of out-of-conference tests.

The first of those match-ups comes Wednesday night in the annual Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic against Marshall. The battle for Mountain State supremacy, held annually in Charleston, has been hotly contested in recent years.

Nine of the last 11 Capital Classics have been decided by six points or less. Two of them have taken overtime to resolve.

One of the few games to fall outside of that pattern of close finishes came last season, when West Virginia won 87-76. But WVU comes into this season's contest with the Herd struggling, while its Conference USA foe is having its best season in years.

Former Florida assistant Donnie Jones' third MU team has been by far his best, sporting a 15-2 record and an unblemished 4-0 mark in C-USA play. It has won its last six contests since dropping a 98-71 decision at then-No. 10 North Carolina on Dec. 22.

After looking at the Herd on film, Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins didn't hesitate in saying this would be the toughest Capital Classic match-up for his team since he returned to his alma mater.

"It's the best (MU team) since I've been here," he said. "I can't speak to before that, but it's the best one since I've been here."

A big reason for the improvement of Jones' squad is the play of 7-foot center Hassan Whiteside. The freshman has averaged nearly a double-double, with 12.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game thus far.

But it is Whiteside's impact on the defensive end that has been especially noteworthy. The center leads the nation in blocked shots, averaging 5.6 rejections per contest.

Twice this season, he has registered triple-doubles -- most recently in an 81-75 win over Central Florida on Jan. 13 in which he registered 14 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks.

"When you've got a 6-11 guy in the middle that's leading the country in blocked shots, it's going to make a difference," said Huggins. "I think they can show some different things defensively because of him, because they have a goalkeeper. It's just hard to get it at the basket against him."

"He's scoring double figures. Double figures for a freshman is pretty good. He's just so long and active, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls."

Surrounding the freshman is a trio of senior starters, led by forward Tyler Wilkerson, who averages 12.6 points and 7.2 boards per contest.

Jones then starts a three-guard lineup, with point guard Darryl Merthie accompanied by shooting guards Chris Lutz and Shaquille Johnson.

The veteran leadership, coupled with the young and talented Whiteside, has proven to be an effective combination for Marshall this season.

"I think they went through a year ago a bit of what we're going through with our new guys, in that they weren't as consistent," Huggins said. "I think they're a lot more consistent and they're really making shots."

While the Mountaineers would typically try to limit the effectiveness of Whiteside defensively by forcing him out to the perimeter, that likely won't be possible against MU, which Huggins expected to play some 2-3 zone like recent WVU foes Notre Dame and Syracuse.

If the Herd do play a zone, it might cut back on the recent trend of whistle-heavy Capital Classics. In the last two games between the schools, 106 fouls were called -- leading to 129 free throws.

While it would be easy to say that's just because of the intensity of the in-state match-up, Huggins disputed that notion.

"Generally, when you have rivalries like Duke-North Carolina or Xavier-Cincinnati where there is proximity and all of that, they're really physical games," said the third-year WVU coach. "And these games really haven't been physical. (Officials) never really gave them a chance to."

"I think that's maybe that's the perception of those guys going in there, that it's going to be (physical)."

While Huggins was careful to say he didn't think the Capital Classic was among the top rivalries in the country (or even in his coaching career, saying the Xavier-Cincinnati game was "almost like a religious war"), he did say the game has positives for the state of West Virginia, even if it isn't easy for the programs involved.

"I think this is great for the state," he said. "It kind of captures the state."

"I think it's hard in the middle of your conference season. We did the Cincinnati-Xavier thing in the middle of the conference season for a long time, and both of the teams really struggled after the game. I think it makes it tougher when you're faced with that, and everybody you're competing with in your conference isn't, if you know what I mean."

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