Emerging from a midday practice marked by blood and bluster, West Virginia forward Kevin Noreen felt his teammates had absorbed a bruising message: Play like Bob Huggins’ teams have played in the past, “not the way we’ve been playing this year.”
Though West Virginia has been correctly impugned for poor shooting during its 4-4 start, Huggins and some older players insist a lack of toughness is as much to blame as missed jumpers.
“Frankly, we’ve been soft and we can’t be soft anymore,” said Noreen, a third-year sophomore. “Like Coach said, we’re not his type of guys right now. We need to get back to playing hard-nosed basketball.”
SATURDAY: West Virginia (4-4) vs. No. 3 Michigan (10-0)
TIME: 8 p.m. Eastern in Brooklyn TELEVISION: ESPN
RADIO: MetroNews coverage begins at 7 p.m. Eastern
That accounts for Friday’s clamor that made WVU’s practice facility sound more like Thunderdome. Mere hours before the Mountaineers boarded a charter flight to New York for Saturday night’s game against No. 3 Michigan (10-0), forward Volodymyr Gerun reportedly was taken to the hospital requiring stitches to his forehead.
“I just saw blood streaming down,” Noreen said. “That’s the kind of practice it was.”
Added Huggins: “I think we got some stuff done today.”
The sting still fresh from Tuesday’s baffling meltdown at Duquesne (a sting that might linger straight through Selection Sunday), Noreen said Huggins brought an attitude of “enough is enough” into the last three days of practices. The combination of spilling a 15-point lead against Duquesne and being an 11-point underdog to Michigan left the coach pinging between flummoxed and fuming.
Asked what sort of corrections his players required during the season’s unfulfilling first month, Huggins dead-panned: “Their attention to detail needs some work, (and) I think that was pretty diplomatic.”
After Duquesne outscored WVU 36-20 in the paint and fueled its second-half comeback by shooting 53 percent, one only wonders what a skilled team like Michigan — coached by one of the game’s crispest offensive minds, John Beilein — will accomplish against WVU in Brooklyn. Driven by point guard Trey Burke (17.1 ppg, 6.9 apg) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), the Wolverines rank fifth nationally in overall team shooting at 51.5 percent and No. 8 in 3-point accuracy at 42 percent. For defenses keen on helping against the NBA-caliber backcourt, there’s 6-foot-6 freshman Nick Stauskas, currently topping the country from 3-point range at 58 percent.
“They spread you, but it’s easy to spread people when you shoot it the way they shoot it,” Huggins said.
Michigan’s impressive start transpired against the nation’s 13th-strongest schedule, including wins over N.C. State, Pitt, Kansas State, Arkansas and Western Michigan. More from the amazing maze-and-blue stat sheet: Michigan’s plus-10 rebounding margin stands 16th-best nationally, somewhat reputing the notion that Beilein’s system is more finesse than fight.
“They rebound the ball really well because they ball-screen all the time, which kind of turns their bigs loose at the goal,” Huggins said. “And they rebound it because Hardaway penetrates. And when you penetrate, you draw help, and you take big bodies off of big bodies.”
Playing in the glistening new Barclays Center against a prejudged Final Four contender, WVU spies an opportunity to right some of its early-season wrongs and, more acutely, regain its rugged reputation.
Vowed Noreen: “We’re not going to hurt anybody, but we’re going to play physically against Michigan.”
MILES MAKES HIS MARK
Gerun’s gash was the result of an elbow he took while trying to pressure forward Keaton Miles.
“Unfortunately I did it,” Miles said. “I felt terrible about it, but It happens in basketball. He was playing defense really hard and then I swung (my arms) through and he caught a ‘bow.
“It was one of those where the play before he had got into me … and it kind of rattled the offense. And then the next possession he tried to do it again, so I just swing through when I saw he came up on me too much, and he had his face in there. It’s just basketball.”
TIME FOR TESTS
Though Huggins prefers to avoid games during finals, this season’s week of exams was made difficult by playing twice — on the road.
“Our schedule got screwed up — because of TV,” he said. “You play 21 national television games, your schedule’s going to be screwed up.”
CAN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT
With West Virginia ranking 293rd out of 345 Division I teams in field-goal shooting (39.8 percent) and 308th in 3-pointers per game (4.3), Huggins has entertained — and dismissed — several theories behind the malaise.
“I hear ‘You’ve got to shoot more in the Coliseum because of depth perception,” he said. “But, you know, I grew up shooting on a hoop that was nailed to the house, and I can shoot.”
Nor does he attribute the slump to WVU playing six of its eight games away from home.
“I think all the hoops are still 10-feet high, and the foul line’s still 15 feet,” he said. “People talk about the crowd, but I’ve never seen the crowd get a steal or block a shot. I think it’s a state of mind.”