MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Welcome back to the regular season, which never really left, but took a short hiatus to Cancun. That’s where West Virginia won two interesting games against mid-majors Northern Iowa and Wichita State to capture the Cancun Challenge.
The Mountaineers (6-0) return home to face a third mid-major in Rhode Island (5-2), whose only two losses are against Power Five schools Maryland and LSU, who have combined for a 12-2 record. The Rams also have a 14-point win under their belts against Alabama.
This is the first visit to Morgantown for Rhode Island since 2004 and WVU is 14-4 all-time at the Coliseum against the Rams, dating back to 1971. There is much to discuss, but before we get into any of it, here’s what you need to know:
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Comcast 37, 843 HD; DirecTV 659; DISH 428) BETTING LINE: West Virginia is a 9-point favorite.
ONE LAST TIME, LET’S RELIVE THE TITLE IN CANCUN
Over the course of two days, West Virginia’s defense held Northern Iowa and Wichita State to a combined 35% shooting from the floor and the Mountaineers erased a 15-point deficit in the second half against Northern Iowa. Miles McBride grew up a lot and proved again that he’s simply not the “other” freshman on WVU’s roster.
As for the “other” freshman, Oscar Tshiebwe had 19 points and 18 rebounds against Wichita State, as he continues to inch closer to becoming the 13th WVU player all-time to have 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same game.
THREE GOOD QUESTIONS
WHO IS DARON RUSSELL? “Fatts” Russell is Rhode Island’s miniature guard who stands 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but plays well above his size. He got the nickname from his mother, who thought he was a chubby baby and the name stuck.
In last season’s 83-70 victory against WVU, Russell had 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
This season, he’s scored at least 20 points over his last five games and has had at least 18 in six of the Rams’ seven games.
The only team that has slowed hims down this season was Maryland. The Terps held Russell to just 1 of 8 from the floor for five points over 40 minutes. Since then, he’s averaged 22.8 points per game and has shot 48% from the field.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE RPI? After winning the Cancun Challenge, the Mountaineers jumped from No. 4 to No. 1 in the RPI, which is a ratings system based on team record and strength of schedule.
On Sunday morning, WVU was still ranked No. 1 — it’s a fluid poll that changes as each individual game across the country is played — but its strength of schedule had improved from 12th to No. 4 in the country. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think anyone quite saw this coming. Keep it all in context, though. The RPI is no longer used as the end-all, be-all tool with the NCAA selection committee that it once was. Still, the strength of schedule jumps right out. That, too, can change once conference play begins if teams like — for example — Wichita State or Pitt begin to take a downward spiral. That could be offset some with an upcoming neutral-court game against Ohio State, as well as WVU’s own Big 12 schedule. Next week’s game against St. John’s won’t do a whole lot for WVU’s strength of schedule, and then there is the Big 12/SEC Challenge game against Missouri, which could help some, too. Overall, if the Mountaineers can get to 19-21 wins, their strength of schedule will be hard to overlook and could help them move up a spot in the seed line in the NCAA tournament compared to other teams who have similar NCAA tournament resumes.
WHAT DOES BOB HUGGINS THINK ABOUT THE 6-0 START? Huggins spoke to the media on Saturday and basically said the Mountaineers are a work in progress in a number of areas. One of those areas was trying to find the right roles for everyone on a team that regularly plays 12 guys at least 10 minutes per game.
“You take a look at different guys, they’re playing multiple positions,” Huggins said. “I don’t think their roles have really changed. We’ve got to get Taz (Sherman) going. Taz had a couple of games early where he played really well. He’s struggled shooting the ball here of late. We’ve got to get him going. We’re trying to figure it out still like everybody else.”
Huggins also spoke about working in a zone defense to go along with the team’s man-to-man defense. Don’t expect that to be a 2-3 zone, which Huggins called, “passive,” and “not in my DNA.”
Overall, he’s liked the way his players have competed, but he needs to find a consistent shooter to help spread defenses away from Tshiebwe and Derek Culver inside.
I think the Mountaineers will have some extra motivation after getting embarrassed against the Rams last season. The students are back in town after Thanksgiving break, so the WVU Coliseum should be near capacity. Everything points to a big blowout, which usually means go the other way. For some reason (probably a dumb one), I will not. WVU will win and cover the point spread, 79-68.
JUSTIN’S SEASON PREDICTIONS AGAINST THE SPREAD: 2-3.