West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins knew that this season would be dicey in terms of scheduling. He didn’t anticipate the constant shuffling of the lineup of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic. His team was slated to play Texas A&M, but learned Tuesday that the Aggies had dropped out, and learned Wednesday that WVU would now face a far tougher foe in Northern Iowa.
Although Texas A&M had been scheduled for a while, Huggins said the uncertainty about the Mountaineers’ first foe in the three-day event has been in flux for a while.
“We’ve been told we were going to play three or four different people. It has been tough from a [preparation] standpoint,” Huggins said Thursday, six days before the eight-team tournament gets underway in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We thought we were playing A&M and had watched film on them for a long time. It’s not like everybody else in the tournament has had to do. I understand a lot of people don’t want to play us, but we have been at a disadvantage because we never knew from day to day who we were going to play.”
WVU’s new first-game opponent, Northern Iowa, recorded a 25-6 record a year ago under head coach Ben Jacobsen, who is entering his 15th season heading the Panther program.
“They are really good,” Huggins said. “They are a team we need to [defeat], obviously, because they are a team that is going to be ranked in the Top 50 when it comes to seeding purposes, so it’s a quality game. It’s a hard game.”
Last year, the Panthers held a 15-point second-half lead over WVU in the Cancun Challenge before the Mountaineers rallied for a 60-55 win.
“I don’t know if we didn’t take them serious enough [last year],” Huggins said. “They did a great job defensively of making us make perimeter shots, and we didn’t make any.”
WVU was 4 of 17 from 3-point range against UNI.
“We think we have solved that problem,” Huggins said. “But when you miss shots it becomes a very difficult game.”
UNI is just the first hurdle on the road to the Crossover Classic final that Huggins thinks is the most difficult.
“You look at the path everyone has from game one through game three, and it’s obviously far less than equal,” Huggins said. “Hopefully this is good preparation for us for March.”
If West Virginia can get past UNI, it will face the winner of St. Mary’s and Memphis. On the opposite side of the bracket, Creighton, South Dakota State, Utah State and Wichita State will battle for a spot in the finals.
While Huggins has been effusive in his praise of his team’s shooting in the preseason, he is a bit more reserved on his evaluation of the team’s defensive performance so far.
“I think we have a ways to go,” he said. “We are getting better as the days go by, but we need to play someone else, just like everybody else. We need to play somebody other than ourselves.”
Unknown is the extent to which West Virginia might unleash its pressure defense, which has seen a declining usage rate over the past couple of seasons. The Mountaineers do have more depth at guard this year, but whether that translates to more pressing remains to be seen.
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The lines between guard positions have blurred in recent years, but there is still no doubting the need for multiple players who can steady the offense, get sets underway and distribute the ball to the right place on time and on target.
Huggins thinks he has three players who can fill that role, including one who might have been thought of more as a two-guard scoring type.
“I think Deuce [Miles McBride] can play a lot of places, and Jordan McCabe has been here and his knowledge is pretty good,” Huggins said. “I am happy with our point guards. Ke’ [Kedrian Johnson] gets better every day. He’s probably the best in transition. He gets it up and down the floor.
“Deuce and Jordan lead with their work ethic. We haven’t had to coach effort, and that’s the hardest thing to coach. Our guys have been really good with the idea they are going to come in and get something done.”
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Youngstown State has canceled its November basketball games and halted all program activity due to a COVID-19 positive test and contract tracing. YSU’s Dec. 2 game with West Virginia is still scheduled for now, but that will be another item to watch as the Penguins try to control the issue.
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Creighton joined Texas A&M, Dayton, Ohio State and Utah in withdrawing from the Crossover Classic due to a positive COVID-19 test.