MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On the eve of another Capital Classic, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins mulled a question regarding the importance of continuing the basketball series against Marshall.
If you expected Huggins to don his promoter’s hat and hype up the in-state game, well, he wasn’t exactly channeling Don King.
“I don’t know,” said WVU’s coach, his voice tailing off a bit. “It’s a hard game sometimes. We just played Gonzaga and we’re getting ready to play Purdue, so it’s hard …”
Listening to Huggins wax rather dispassionately about the annual showdown between the Mountain State’s only two Division I programs, you’re reminded of the obvious: that it clearly means more to the team in green. And despite that deficit in motivation, West Virginia leads the series 30-11 overall and 17-5 since the game became a Charleston mainstay in 1992.
Still, even five wins in 22 years represents a few nice gets for Marshall—which has never won an NCAA tourney game (and hasn’t sniffed a bid since 1987)—and a few severe headaches for West Virginia, whose 25 NCAA tourney wins are tied for 35th nationally.
Because the Capital Classic airs exclusively on in-state television affiliates, it accomplishes little from an exposure standpoint. Nor does WVU receive a recruiting bump from the game, unlike, say, the current series with Purdue, which Huggins hopes to open doors to talent-rich Indiana. Given Marshall’s average season-ending RPI for the past decade was 151, the strength-of-schedule boost has been marginal.
Even the rivalry angle is, to a degree, overstated.
Though WVU and Marshall fans like to spar on message boards, Huggins experienced far more amped buildups to the crosstown rivalry of Cincinnati-Xavier, whose campuses are separated by less than three miles.
“Cincinnati-Xavier is off the charts,” he said. “The whole thing starts two weeks before the game … it’s just nonstop. I got into trouble for saying it, but it’s a holy war. It’s the Catholics against the heathens, that’s the way they look at it.”
“A lot of it is proximity,” added Huggins. “I don’t think people understand how far away we are from Marshall. It’s a long way.”
But before writing off WVU-Marshall as nothing more than a necessary-and-perilous evil for the state’s flagship program, consider the series has resonated with ticket sales. The past three games drew an average crowd of 12,192 to the 12,500-seat Charleston Civic Center. As long as the butts-to-seats ratio remains that near to capacity, it’s a sort-of backyard brawl worth continuing.