West Virginia basketball gets its shot at top-seeded Gonzaga

West Virginia guard Miles McBride (4) shoots a 3-pointer over Western Kentucky guard Kenny Cooper (21) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in SIoux Falls, S.D. (AP Photo/Josh Jurgens)

During the downtime of last week’s Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins pounced on an opportunity to challenge his team early.

Tennessee had dropped out of the Jimmy V Classic, leaving No. 1 Gonzaga without an opponent. Never one to shy away from a tough matchup, Huggins placed a call to ESPN — the event’s operator — and claimed the spot for the Mountaineers.

“You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve got some very dear friends, and ESPN … I thought, “What the heck, let’s go play Gonzaga,'” Huggins said.

No. 11 West Virginia (3-0) will take on Gonzaga (2-0) today in Indianapolis, hoping to contain an offense that averages nearly 100 points per game. The contest will tip off at 7 p.m. from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse and will be broadcast on ESPN.

Much like the Mountaineers, Gonzaga is undefeated, having opened the season with two straight wins. The Bulldogs defeated No. 6 Kansas and unranked Auburn, outscoring the two schools 192-157.

Their offense runs through two starting forwards: Drew Timme and Corey Kispert. Timme averages 26.5 points per game, while Kispert is a close second averaging 24.

“We’re practicing now knowing how to defend their offense,” senior forward Gabe Osabuohien said. “They move the ball a lot, and most of their scoring is based off of the two forwards, so I’m definitely excited for the game. I’m excited to guard both of them — hopefully I get to guard both. The goal is to shut both of them down and just play our game and do what we do as West Virginia.”

Led by head coach Mark Few, who is the winningest active coach by percentage, the Bulldogs possess an up-tempo offense that led the nation in scoring a year ago.

“Stop them on fastbreaks and don’t give up easy points,” senior guard Taz Sherman said when asked about the defense’s focus. “They like to get out fast, and that’s why they average 96 points a game. We’re really focused on stopping the ball early and not giving up easy transition points and also try to attack them in transition, as well, on the fast break.”

The Mountaineers enter the matchup allowing an average of 67 points per game, relying heavily on the defensive efforts that had them at the top of the Big 12 conference a season ago.

Junior forward Derek Culver has shined for West Virginia in the season’s infancy, securing the honor of Crossover Classic MVP for his performance in the tournament. Entering the Gonzaga game, Culver is averaging a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Culver likely will be leaned on against Gonzaga as, after the high hopes of last season faded due to the season’s abrupt end, the Mountaineers are eyeing the opportunity to earn their spot at the table and join the discussion of the nation’s top teams.

“It’s a statement game,” Sherman said. “The way the season ended last year, I feel like we had a good chance to make a run the way we were playing. We want to show everybody that we deserve to be one of those teams that’s talked about in the Final Four and national championship conversation. That’s why this is a big game.”

The university also announced Tuesday that there would be no spectators at the WVU Coliseum for December basketball games. A capacity limit of 20 percent previously had been announced, but only essential game operations personnel, along with families of the players and basketball staffs, will be admitted in December due to COVID-19 concerns. Capacity for January and February games will be announced at a later date.


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