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Capital Classic: Record doesn’t show it, but WVU has improved

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When West Virginia tipped off its 11th game last season, it did so with a 5-5 record as the Mountaineers were on their way to a 13-19 season and the worst experience of Coach Bob Huggins' career.

Saturday's Capital Classic against Marshall is the 11th game of this season, and when the ball goes up at 7:30 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center, the Mountaineers beneath it will be just one game better than they were a year ago.

Despite all the points scored in the first 10 contests to suggest this team was superior to that team, the difference is just one game.

But that's on paper and the Mountaineers don't believe that's quite accurate.

"It's not a fair indication," junior forward Kevin Noreen said. "I don't know what the numbers were last year, but I'm sure the scoring differential in some of the losses was a lot greater than what it has been this year. Some of the losses we had last year, we kind of gave up. I don't think you've seen this team give up yet.

"We're getting there, but we've got to get a lot better."

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The 2012-13 season started with a 34-point loss to Gonzaga. West Virginia led the similarly constructed Bulldogs by 10 points in the second half of Tuesday's 80-76 loss, an appropriate bookend to compare Huggins' sixth and seventh teams at his alma mater.

Through 10 games a year ago, WVU was averaging 69.6 points and allowing 67.5 per game. They'd lost by 34, 3, 7, 4 and 13 points - a combined 53 points. They'd won five games by a combined 78 points.

Through 10 games this season, the Mountaineers are averaging 82.8 points per game and allowing 69.2. They've lost by 5, 7, 9, and 4 points - a combined 25 points. They've won six games by a combined 152 points, nearly twice the margin last season despite just one more win.

"We've grown," said sophomore guard Eron Harris, who averages a team-high 19.3 points per game and shoots 51.7 percent from 3-point range. "I really don't know how to explain it, but we've grown. People need to see that. We're more together. Guys want to listen. We have more competitors. We still need guys to do more but we have guys who are competitive and unselfish."

What the start to this season has illuminated about last season is that this team has players who like one another and who like playing with one another more so than last season.

WVU has 150 assists this season, 22 more than last season, and only 92 turnovers, 16 fewer than last season. A year ago, the Mountaineers had a 128-114 assist-turnover ratio.

But WVU plays faster and scores more this season, which is more fun and makes for a better atmosphere around the team. Last year's team was shooting 40.1 percent from the floor (248-for-619) and 28.4 percent from 3-point range (48-for-169). This team is shooting seven points higher from the floor with 44 more made baskets on only one more shot attempt and 14.3 points higher from 3-point range with 45 more made shots and 49 more attempts.

"A lot of years you watch and say, 'Are we getting better?'" Huggins said. "Because these guys, I think to a large degree, had so far to go because they just knew nothing coming in, I can see them getting better every day."

These Mountaineers have strong flaws, too. Last year's team let the first 10 opponents shoot 42.7 percent. This year's team is allowing 42 percent shooting. Last year's team let opponents shoot 33.4 percent from 3-point range. This year's opponents are shooting 31.9. WVU's field-goal and 3-point percentage defense are both about average nationally.

WVU's performance at the free-throw line is not. The team shoots 67.4 percent, which ranks No. 233, and has had some bad showings in big moments. The Mountaineers shot a lot of free throws in early games, but only get 18.2 percent of their points at the foul line, which ranks No. 304.

WVU has also had issues with transition defense - guarding teams on the run - and defensive transition - switching from offense to defense - but the problems aren't just there. Opponents get to the basket more than the Mountaineers like to see. Last year's team blocked 3.9 shots per game in the first 10 games. This year's teams blocks 2.6. Last year's team averaged 8.4 steals in the first 10 games. This year's team averages 4.1. Last year's team was plus-3.6 in rebounding margin. This year's team is plus-1.9.

The combination runs counter to the reputation of teams Huggins has coached at WVU and Cincinnati. Before leading his team to an 80-71 victory against the Mountaineers, Missouri Coach Frank Haith recalled his experiences against Huggins as a head coach and an assistant and said the teams are "usually very scrappy and tough and they're very physical. This team is like that."

All the compliments about defensive-minded past teams were cast aside when the Tigers took a 25-point lead.

"Frank hadn't watched tape yet when he made those comments," Huggins quipped. "We're a whole lot different."

Part of it is personnel. The offense goes faster and functions smoother without centers Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray, but this team lacks something that those two players could at times give last year's team.

"I can't remember the last time we didn't have anybody we couldn't throw it close to," Huggins said before reeling off Joe Alexander, Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones as the most notable of his reliable inside scorers at WVU. "We haven't had a team where we haven't had a guy that could stop the bleeding by throwing it close."

The Capital Classic is one of three non-conference games left for the Mountaineers. They play host to Purdue (8-2) Dec. 22 and then William & Mary Dec. 29 back at the Civic Center. Big 12 play begins with back-to-back road games against TCU and Texas Tech.

"We're so close," Huggins said. "We're so close to being a pretty good team, but at the same time, we're so far away."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.

 


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