The announcement came without warning, but Bob Huggins’s last-second scheduling of No. 1 Gonzaga (2-0) could prove to be one of West Virginia’s most important non-conference games this season.
Upon seeing that No. 13 Tennessee, Gonzaga’s original opponent, was forced to withdraw from the Jimmy V Classic, it took Huggins all of 15 minutes to get the No. 11 Mountaineers (3-0) into the event to face the nation’s top team.
“We’ve always played a hard schedule,” Huggins said Monday. “We’ve always played somebody that, they might now have been the top team in the country but they were in the top-10 and certainly could have been the top team in the country. We haven’t run from anybody.”
According to Huggins, he informed the team they would be taking on the nation’s top team during halftime of their season-opener against South Dakota State last Wednesday.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for us to play the number one team in the country this early,” senior Gabe Osabuohien said. “It’s also good for ourselves to know where we’re at. If the whole country’s calling them number one, for us to go over there and play them it’s going to show us where we stand and where our chances are at for a national championship.”
The nation’s top-ranked team, Gonzaga is averaging 96 points per game this season, defeating No. 7 Kansas 102-90 and Auburn 90-67. The Bulldogs are shooting 58.5% from the floor through two games and 30.8% from three. They are also averaging 17.5 assists per game.
“They’re good, they’re very, very skilled,” Huggins said. “I think that’s been a trait of Gonzaga basketball for a lot of years, they have a lot of very skilled guys. They pass it extremely well, they shoot it extremely well, they shoot it as well as anybody we’ve played in a long time.”
The Bulldogs are averaging 57 points in the paint and 25.5 fast breaks points.
“They like to get out fast and that’s why they average 96 points per game, half of those are on fast-break points alone,” senior Taz Sherman said. “We’re really focusing on stopping the ball early and not giving up easy transition points.”
Like WVU, Gonzaga is led on offense by two big men, Drew Timme (26.5 points per game) and Corey Kispert (24 ppg).
“They move the ball a lot and their scoring is definitely based off their two forwards so I’m excited to guard both of them,” Osabuohien said. “The goal is to shut both of them down, play our game and do what we do as West Virginia.”
The Mountaineers have played a No. 1-ranked team six times in the previous six seasons, going 2-4 in those games. Sherman said playing the No. 1 team this early in the season is the perfect way for the Mountaineers to insert themselves into the national championship conversation.
“It’s a statement game,” Sherman said flatly. “The way the season ended last year I feel like we had a good chance to make a run the way we were playing last year. This is a statement game for us. 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 conversations.”
WVU and Gonzaga will tipoff at 7 p.m. EST from Indianapolis in the Jimmy V Classic Wednesday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.