Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 26, 2013

Improved Mountaineers head to Cancun

for the Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — This year’s West Virginia basketball team has looked like a different group than the one that finished 13-19 last season, giving head coach Bob Huggins just the third losing campaign of his career.

The Mountaineers are 4-1 following blowout wins over Georgia Southern and Presbyterian in the home portion of the Triple Crown Cancun Challenge. West Virginia blew a 17-point first-half lead on the road in an 87-82 loss at Virginia Tech.

A team that struggled to make shots a year ago is now averaging 88.8 points per contest and shooting .506 from the field. Its .436 mark from behind the 3-point stripe ranks second in the Big 12.

The Mountaineers are taking care of the basketball with a plus-6.2 turnover margin and sharing it well, averaging more than 17 assists per game.

Individually, sophomore Eron Harris leads the Big 12 in scoring with 20.4 points per game, and junior Juwan Staten is third at 19.2, while leading the conference with 7.6 assists.

Freshman Devin Williams ranks fourth in the league in rebounding with eight boards per contest, and junior Gary Brown, Harris, freshman Nathan Adrian and junior Remi Dibo are all among the top 15 3-point shooters in the conference.

The numbers are impressive, but they haven’t come against a who’s-who of college basketball powers — the other two wins came against Mount St. Mary’s and Duquesne.

That will change over the next few weeks, though. WVU will face Missouri, Gonzaga and Purdue, among others, before opening Big 12 play at TCU on Jan. 4.

Up first is today’s 6 p.m. game against Old Dominion in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, in the Triple Crown Cancun Challenge.

The Monarchs, under the direction of former Virginia head coach Jeff Jones — who’s trying to turn around the fortunes of ODU, which finished 5-25 last season — are off to a 4-1 start.

“I’ve got great respect for Jeff,” said Huggins. “I think Jeff does a great job coaching. We played them in the Sweet 16 when he was at Virginia (and Huggins was at Cincinnati). He grew up like I did. He’s a son of a coach, and he’s been in the gym his whole life. So I have great respect for him.”

Aaron Bacote is ODU’s top scoring threat, averaging 21.6 points per game and shooting better than 52 percent from 3-point range. Dimitri Batter averages 12.2 points per game, and Keenan Palmore, the third guard in the starting lineup, is averaging 10.2 points per outing.

Inside, the Monarchs of Conference USA are 58th in the country with 41.4 rebounds per game, and Richard Ross leads the way with 11.4 points and eight rebounds per game.

Tonight’s games will be televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network.

• • •

Win or lose tonight, WVU is sure to face a difficult challenge on Wednesday when it plays its second game in Mexico against either Saint Louis or Wisconsin. Those two teams will play in the other game tonight at 8:30 p.m., with the two winners and two losers meeting Wednesday.

Saint Louis, out of the Atlantic 10, is 5-0 with wins over Southeast Missouri State, SIU-Edwardsville, Southern Illinois, Oral Roberts and Bowling Green.

Wisconsin (6-0), ranked No. 10 in the country, has wins over St. John’s, No. 11 Florida, Green Bay, North Dakota, Bowling Green and Oral Roberts. It’s led by junior forward Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot, 234-pounder who’s averaging 17.3 points and five rebounds per game, including a 43-point effort in a 103-85 win over North Dakota.

“I’ve seen their highlights,” said Huggins when asked about a possible matchup with the Badgers. “I think we probably ought to guard that big 7-foot guy who had 43 the other day, just off of the top of my head.”

Huggins said his team will enjoy the warm weather and a break from the frigid temperatures currently filling the Mountain State, but he’s been pleased with the attitude the group has concerning the trip.

“We were talking about what we need to bring, and Juwan Staten stopped them and said, ‘Everybody needs to understand, this is a business trip. This isn’t vacation,’” said Huggins of a recent locker room conversation. “We haven’t had that in a long time.”

— E-mail: chuffman@