College Sports

Eagles prepare for tough battle against Huggins, West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A couple of weeks ago, Winthrop coach Randy Peele got a phone message from one of his coaching friends on the staff of Bob Huggins at West Virginia.

The message: "It's quarter to 12 and we're still in the gym."

"And," Peele said, "he was talking p.m."

As in almost midnight.

Huggins, a taskmaster if there ever was one, works his players hard and expects them to return the favor on the court, and that's what Peele and the Winthrop Eagles (4-2) face at 1 p.m. today in what should be a wild and restless West Virginia Coliseum.

The Eagles won their first true road game of the season three days ago, beating East Carolina in front of an announced crowd of 4,000 that looked a lot smaller and was, for the most part, as quiet as the front of row in church.

It won't be that way today. This is a big weekend for Mountaineer fans.

At the game, former players who played with Huggins in the mid-1970s will be introduced and last year's NIT championship team will be recognized.

With Huggins coming in to coach his alma mater during the offseason, a record 6,600 season tickets were sold. The coliseum, where the Mountaineers have won 17 straight and 35 of their last 37 against non-conference teams, could be close to a sellout of 14,000.

And it won't be quiet.

The Mountaineer fans may use this one to loosen up their lungs, because tonight West Virginia hosts border rival Pitt in football. With a win, West Virginia is likely to play in the national championship game.

The atmosphere will be hard to deal with, perhaps as hard as dealing with a team that returns 71 percent of its scoring from a team that went 27-5 last year and has had the two largest winning margins in school history -- 65 and 66 points -- the past two home games.

The Mountaineers are 4-1, with the only loss 74-72 to Tennessee. The Eagles represent the toughest home opponent to date. West Virginia already has handled Arkansas-Monticello, Prairie View A&M and Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Peele knows what's coming, because he's seen Huggins' teams before.

"They're going to defend like crazy and rebound, and he's going to give them some freedom to play," Peele said. "They do two things well, defend and rebound. That's who they are."

They're out-rebounding opponents by seven a game and forcing 24 turnovers.

Peele's UNC Greensboro team played Huggins' Cincinnati Bearcats in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament and lost by five. It was the only time that season the Bearcats were out-rebounded. In preparing for today's game, Peele thought about 1996, and there could be a couple of new wrinkles in the game plan, things the Bearcats didn't handle well in '96.

But if the Eagles don't rebound, it will be a long afternoon.

"If they beat you on the glass," Peele said, "you're in trouble."

The Eagles haven't been out-rebounded in a game this season, but the Mountaineers are averaging 40 rebounds a game and shooting 50 percent. Four starters average in double figures and seven players average at least three rebounds.

Peele needs another good day from 6-foot-7 Taj McCullough, who is averaging 15.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, both career-highs. McCullough has been in double figures scoring every game and had at least seven rebounds in four games.

And freshmen Charles Corbin and George Valentine and junior college transfer Andy Buechert need to be strong in the post.

Buechert, after a slow start, had his best game against ECU, playing 24 minutes, getting seven points and four rebounds. He played on a gimpy right ankle, but should be ready today.

Senior guard Michael Jenkins has had at least 20 points in three of the past four games, including 20 and 23 the last two. He's made 14 of his last 25 shots and half his 12 3-pointers.

Jenkins says he's anxious to get to West Virginia.

"I'm ready to see Bob Huggins," Jenkins said after the ECU game. "I've always loved college basketball and still do, and I'm lucky to be playing it. When I was growing up, I'd see Huggins on TV. I'm glad to be playing and have a chance to see him."

Jenkins would love to greet Huggins with a few jumpers.

Peele would love to greet him with a team that executes and plays within itself, the team that played that way for much of the ECU game.

"That was a good job to go on the road and win," Peele told his team Thursday. "Until you go on the road and win, you haven't proven yourself."

He also told them he thought they could "play with anyone in the country," but that it was up to them to play hard on defense and take good shots, two things they need plenty of today.

"It will be chaos," Peele said. "I hope all those football fans will be out tailgating. The fans will be great, wild and crazy."

WINTHROP (4-2) AT WEST VIRGINIA (4-1)

• When: 1 p.m.

• Where: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.

• TV: None

• On the Web: MSNsportsNET.com

• Radio: WRHI (1340 AM, 94.3 FM), 12:30 p.m.

• Winthrop's probable starters: G Chris Gaynor 5-10 Sr. (10.3 ppg, 4.3 apg); G Michael Jenkins 6-3 Sr. (16.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg); C Charles Corbin 6-7 Fr. (6.7 ppg, 4 rpg); F Mantoris Robinson 6-5 So. (6 ppg, 5 rpg); F Taj McCullough 6-7 Sr. (15.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg)

• West Virginia's probable starters: G Darris Nichols 6-3 Sr. (10.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Alex Ruoff 6-6 Jr. (16.6 ppg, 3 rpg); C Jamie Smalligan 7-0 Sr. (5.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg); F Joe Alexander 6-8 Jr. (12.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg); F Da'Sean Butler 6-7 So. (12.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg)

• Notes: The Mountaineers have won two straight after their lone loss, 74-72, to Tennessee. ... Mountaineers are 3-0 at home, with the last win a 110-44 drubbing of Maryland-Eastern Shore. ... West Virginia is coached by Bob Huggins, who has a career record of 594-212. He's in his first season at Morgantown. ... West Virginia was picked seventh in the Big East Conference. ... Eagles' Gaynor (34.7), Jenkins (33.2) and McCullough (30.0) are averaging more than 30 minutes per game. In the past nine years, Winthrop has never had more than one player to average 30 minutes per game per season. ... Huggins and Winthrop coach Randy Peele have met once before. Huggins beat Peele 66-61 in the first round of the NCAA tournament when he was at Cincinnati and Peele was at UNC Greensboro. ... WVU opponents are averaging 24 turnovers and the Mountaineers average 40 rebounds per game.

• Next up: Winthrop hosts Akron at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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