Bob Huggins isn’t thrilled with the idea of West Virginia stepping out of Big East play for a pair of games in January. Hassan Whiteside could be one of the reasons why.
The No. 11 Mountaineers will travel to Charleston for their annual showdown Wednesday night against state rival Marshall, which features the nation’s leading shot blocker in Whiteside and has already matched its win total from last season.
West Virginia (13-3) will play twice outside the Big East this week, hosting No. 24 Ohio State on Saturday. Huggins would prefer to keep his team in conference play.
“But it doesn’t matter,” said Huggins about the unusual schedule. “So we’re going to do it anyway.”
The Mountaineers have lost two of three, falling 72-71 to then-No. 5 Syracuse last Saturday. That makes this matchup a tricky one, particularly with Marshall (15-2) having won six straight for the first time since the 1994-95 season and off to its best start since the 1971-72 squad began 23-2.
The Thundering Herd’s resurgence has been largely keyed by Whiteside, a 6-foot-11 freshman averaging 5.6 blocks per game. Whiteside recorded his second triple-double last Wednesday with 14 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks in an 81-75 win at Central Florida.
“When you get a 6-11 guy in the middle that’s leading the country in blocking shots, it’s going to make a difference,” Huggins said. “And I think they can show some different things defensively because of him, because they’ve got a goalkeeper. It’s hard to get it at the basket against him.”
West Virginia is already having shooting problems, being held to 39.3 percent from the field Saturday. Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks combined to make 9 of 25 shots for 25 points, and Huggins was critical of their play.
The Mountaineers will try to bounce back with a fourth straight victory over the Thundering Herd after winning 87-76 last season. Marshall, though, has four of its starters back from a squad that went 15-17.
“Well I think they went through a year ago a little bit what I think we’re going through with our new guys in that they weren’t as consistent,” Huggins said. “I think they’re a lot more consistent, they are really making shots.”
Whiteside followed his latest triple-double with another big effort Saturday in an 89-79 home win over Tulane. He notched his ninth double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“I thought Hassan did a great job rebounding when we needed it,” coach Donnie Jones said. “He made some big time plays.”
Whiteside, named Conference USA rookie of the week Monday, is part of a balanced attack with three players averaging at least 12 points.
Huggins, a Morgantown native, knows the importance of this game within the state, although he believes too much is being made of the rivalry.
“Generally when you have rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, Xavier-Cincinnati, where there’s proximity and all that, they’re really physical games,” he said. “And these games haven’t been physical.”
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