It's the most wonderful time of the year, friends: the BIG EAST OPENER! This year, like last year, Marquette opens conference play against the Mountaineers of West Virginia, at the ungodly hour of 10:00 a.m. Central time on New Year's Day.
To help us mark the occasion, we traded questions with SBN's excellent West Virginia-devoted blog, The Smoking Musket. (Here's the link to our answers to their questions.) A big tip of the hat to Country Roads from The Smoking Musket, who was kind enough to put up with us on New Year's Eve. Cheers, friend: as is our custom, the next time you're in Milwaukee, the first round of Jager is on us.
AE: So, uh: 10 a.m. Central time tomorrow. Bloodies at our place before the game, if you're interested ...
SM: Kind of an early tipoff, which is unusual. Hey, at least we didn't make a New Year's Day bowl this year that overlapped with the game like last year's Gator Bowl and basketball game against Purdue. I'd be happy to join you for bloody marys if you pay for my flight.
AE: West Virginia had a terrific finishing kick to the 2009-'10 season, winning the Big East tournament before making an incredible run to the Final Four. How's the Year After going so far? Are expectations still sky high in Morgantown?
SM: It's been disappointing. Nobody expected to make it back to the Final Four without Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, and Wellington Smith, but we also didn't anticipate losing to St. John's at home. Everyone thinks Huggins can win a national title, but he's going to have to recruit a little better than he has so far if that's going to happen. This year's team isn't very athletic and they don't play particularly hard, which is kind of a bad combination.
More Qs, more As, after the jump.
AE: Do you miss Da'Sean Butler as much as Marquette misses Lazar Hayward? Because we really, REALLY miss Lazar Hayward.
SM: Absolutely, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Yes, Butler was consistently productive and was at his best in the clutch. His production on the court speaks for itself, but where we really miss him is in the locker room. Butler was the consummate leader and also happened to be the hardest worker on the team. That kind of attitude really rubbed off on the other players, which is really the only reason WVU was able to make its run last year. So far, nobody has stepped up to even begin to fill that void.
AE: This is Joe Mazzulla's last season, right? I feel like we've been talking about him for eight years. How's his doctoral thesis coming along?
SM: Amazingly, Mazzulla has only been around since the 2006-07 season that ended with an NIT Championship. But yeah, he's been a big part of WVU's success over that time. And I'm pretty sure Joe won't be writing any theses any time soon. He's not a dumb guy, but I get the feeling his future will be in coaching.
AE: Kevin Jones was a monster as the third scoring option for West Virginia last year. How has he adapted to becoming more of a focal point on offense?
SM: Not well, which is part of WVU's problem. I'm really not sure if it's he's capable of being a team's go-to scorer. He thrives off of playing good defense, rebounding, and chipping in points off putbacks and set shots. WVU would be better served if another player or two stepped into the role of primary scorer and allowed Kevin to just do his thing.
AE: When West Virginia is doing well, what's clicking? When WVU is struggling, what's not working?
SM: For WVU to win, its perimeter shooters have to be hot. We simply can't create shots off the dribble and thus have to rely on guys like Casey Mitchell, Dalton Pepper, Truck Bryant and Johnnie West to bomb threes. It's really not a very good recipe for success. Even when those guys are on, we still need to play really good defense (which we've struggled with, especially when our best defender, John Flowers, gets in foul trouble) and rebound well. So far, we haven't done a good job of that, especially at the center position where sophomores Deniz Kilicli and Dan Jennings have struggled to adapt to the college game.
AE: Marquette has been god-awful shooting threes so far this year, and our zone offense remains a work in progress. Has Huggins experimented with a zone at all this year?
SM: Huggins is traditionally known for man-to-man defense, but he has incorporated some of the 1-3-1 zone that WVU ran under John Beilein. (I also remember him installing a Triangle and Two against Marquette back in 2008 that resulted in an upset win in Morgantown.) He went to the 1-3-1 in the second half against Miami, but that resulted in WVU coughing up a 13-point lead in the second half. I wouldn't be surprised to see WVU go back to the zone against Marquette, given the way St. John's carved up our man-to-man.
AE: What's the best bar in Morgantown to watch a Mountaineers game? (Bonus points if you can point me to one where I might find Huggy after the game.)
SM: It really depends on what you're looking for. The best sports bar in town is Kegler's, which is on the Evansdale campus close to the Coliseum. They have great wings, plenty of large flatscreen TVs, cheap beer, and attractive waitresses. It's hard to ask for anything more than that. The Sports Page downtown is a decent place to watch a game, but moreso because of the atmosphere than the bar itself. As for other bars, Crockett's Lodge is great if you want a traditional West Virginia feel, Mario's Fishbowl in South Park is an iconic Morgantown bar, The Boston Beanery has excellent food if you're looking for a good restaurant, and Bent Willey's is the place all the college kids usually frequent.
You MIGHT find Huggy just about anywhere---the man loves his alcohol. He has been seen in Keglers and Mario's Fishbowl from time to time, but your best chance of running into him after the game would probably be in the Rat Pack Lounge in the Waterfront Place Hotel. He used to own a condo on the top floor of the hotel, so the Rat Pack was a natural place for him. Now that he moved into his house, though, that might not be the case anymore. But it would still be my recommendation, and is a very good cigar and martini type bar regardless of the clientele.
Best of luck to you guys, hope you enjoy Morgantown.