Capital Classic a matchup of motivation

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.

Tipoff: 7 p.m. at Charleston Civic Center (Various TV affiliates around West Virginia)
Records: The Thundering Herd (4-5) have dropped three straight games, all on the road, to East Tennessee 88-78, Vanderbilt 69-67 and Penn State 90-77. West Virginia is 6-4 after losing to No. 20 Gonzaga 80-76 on Tuesday
RPIs: Marshall is No. 222 and WVU is No. 87.
Coach: Tom Herrion stands 60-50 at Marshall in his fourth season and, including a previous four-year stint at College of Charleston, 140-88 overall.
Top players: Marshall indefinitely suspended leading scorer Elijah Pittman (21.4 points) earlier this week, though Huggins said he would be surprised to see the 6-foot-9 senior forward play. Pittman hurt WVU from outside in last year’s matchup and leads the Herd with 75 attempted 3-pointers this season. His 72 free throws are 28 more than anyone else on the roster. … If Pittman remains suspended, more responsibility falls upon freshman point guard Kareem Canty (18.3 points, 6.6 assists). Another rookie, 6-5 forward Ryan Taylor (11.4 ppg, 7.6 rebounds), remains questionable after missing the past two games with a knee injury. He was a high school teammate of WVU guard Eron Harris at Lawrence North (Ind.) two seasons ago. Said Huggins: “Other than Missouri, they’re probably as athletic as anybody we’ve played.”
WVU roster notes: Eron Harris (19.3 ppg) scored 23 points in the loss to Gonzaga and continues to shoot better from 3-point range (51.7 percent) than he does inside the arc (44.1 percent). … Terry Henderson cracked the starting five for the first time this season and scored 15 points against Gonzaga, his third straight game in double figures. … Point guard Juwan Staten (16.4 ppg) ranks No. 8 nationally at 6.8 assists per game and fifth in the Big 12 with 82 defensive rebounds. … “We can be good,” said Huggins, whose team needs to win its final three nonconference games and probably go 10-8 in the Big 12 to be in the NCAA discussion. “It’s just that our margin for error is not real big. We can’t take plays off, we can’t not run back down the floor.”
Line: NA
Prediction: West Virginia 81-70
Marshall guard Kareem Canty (1) drives against Vanderbilt’s Eric McClellan during the Herd’s 69-67 loss in Nashville.

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