By CAM HUFFMAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A new era in West Virginia University basketball will begin today when the Mountaineers (7-5) take on Oklahoma (9-3) at 4 p.m. at the WVU Coliseum, in a game that will air locally on WOAY television.
The contest will mark WVU’s first-ever Big 12 Conference basketball game, and like the football conference opener against Baylor in September, it will include some extra fanfare.
The game has been designated as a Gold Rush, with the near-sellout crowd asked to where gold, and West Virginia’s own country music band Taylor Made will be performing the national anthem.
It will be a historic moment for WVU athletics, but the players are putting an emphasis on today’s game for a very different reason.
If the Mountaineers hope to continue their run of five NCAA appearances in five seasons under head coach Bob Huggins, they’re going to have to play better during the conference portion of their schedule.
“We've been working everyday, and sometimes we stay a couple extra hours after practice,” said sophomore guard Gary Browne.
“We're feeling good, and we need to come along and play great games. We have a great chance to increase our RPI, and we need to win this game.”
The start of conference play can often be good for a struggling squad. Normally, it means facing familiar opponents and getting into a routine. But that’s a little different for WVU, which will be playing many of its conference opponents for the first time.
“When you play Georgetown, you know what you're getting,” said Huggins.
“When you play Villanova, you know what you're getting. But that part of it's all new (this year).”
And so is the travel schedule.
“It's not like flying to Philadelphia and back,” said Huggins of the unique road trips to places like Texas and Oklahoma in the Mountaineers’ new league.
“We're starting games at 9 o'clock. That kind of thing will take some time to get it figured out.”
But that’s all a problem to be addressed another day. Today’s game will be played in the WVU Coliseum, where the Mountaineers have won 46 of their last 50 games against unranked teams.
And, surprisingly, the opponent is one WVU knows quite well, considering the Mountaineers and Sooners met on Nov. 25 in the Old Spice Classic, a 77-70 OU victory that didn’t count in the conference standings.
“They have real talented players, and they like to shoot the ball whenever they have a chance,” said WVU senior forward Deniz Kilicli, who scored13 points in that first meeting and is averaging 7.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game this season. “(Senior guard Steven) Pledger’s the leading returning scorer in the conference, so he's dangerous. And their bigs are really mobile.”
Pledger, averaging 11.5 points and three rebounds per game, is one of two double-figure scorers for OU, along with senior forward Romero Osby, who’s scoring 12.6 points and grabbing 6.3 rebounds per contest.
But those two weren’t the difference against the Mountaineers the first time around, scoring just eight points each. Junior forward Amath M’Baye scored 19 points in that game, while freshman guard Je’lon Hornbeak scored 14.
“How we play is different than anybody else,” said Kilicli, who listed getting back on defense as a key to victory in today’s game.
“That happens with every team. Their scorers don't score as much, but the others do.
“When we were good — when we went to the Final Four — nobody scored their average. That's where we have to get to.”
West Virginia finished its nonconference schedule — at least the bulk of it, there’s still one more with a made-for-TV date at Purdue set for Jan. 19 — with a disappointing 7-5 record.
Losses to No. 19 Gonazga and No. 3 Michigan were explainable, and the setback in the first meeting with Oklahoma wasn’t a resume killer, either. But a 63-60 loss to Davidson, also in the Old Spice Classic, and a 60-56 defeat at Duquesne that saw the Mountaineers blow a double-digit lead certainly raised some eyebrows.
Even the last three wins — Oakland (76-71), Radford (72-62) and Eastern Kentucky (74-67) — were up in the air in the final minutes and way too close for comfort for the WVU faithful, especially considering they came inside the WVU Coliseum.
“A win is a win — if you win by 20 or win by 1,” said Browne, refusing to make any sort of apology for the close finishes.
“You don't have to lose to learn something. You can win and still learn, and we're confident because we're winning games. We just need to keep playing hard and bring a lot of intensity.”
“I think we're getting better everyday,” said the 6-foot-9 native of Istanbul, Turkey. “And I think it's going to be a better game for us.”