COLUMBIA, Mo. • As one of two undefeated basketball teams left in the Southeastern Conference, Frank Haith’s Missouri Tigers have feasted on a lighter schedule the past month. That changes this week when the diet adds some substance.
Missouri (7-0) hosts West Virginia (6-2) tonight in the Big 12/SEC Challenge at Mizzou Arena, then faces its first ranked opponent Saturday when No. 18 UCLA (8-0) visits Columbia for a nationally televised 11:30 a.m. game on CBS.
Fresh off sweeping Nevada and Northwestern at the Las Vegas Invitational, the Tigers face their first significant tests in what could be a revealing month of nonconference play. After hosting Western Michigan on Dec. 15, the Tigers play Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis on Dec. 21 and travel to North Carolina State on Dec. 28.
Starting with tonight’s matchup with Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers, the Tigers will start beefing up their NCAA Tournament résumé with some teams accustomed to playing in March. Huggins, now in his seventh year coaching at his alma mater, is coming off his first losing season since 1984-85, his first season at Akron. In their inaugural Big 12 season last year, the Mountaineers were 13-19.
Haith looks at last year as an anomaly for Huggins, who has taken 20 teams to the NCAA Tournament at Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia.
“I think they’re much better than they were last year,” Haith said. “They’re so efficient offensively, that I think their coach will tell you their team (last year) was not as good offensively as they are now.”
The only blemishes on West Virginia’s schedule have come against Virginia Tech and Wisconsin. Eron Harris, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, leads West Virginia with 20.3 points a game, while point guard Juwan Staten, a 6-1 junior, averages 7.5 assists a game. The Mountaineers are averaging 85.1 points a game and shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range.
Missouri and West Virginia are meeting for the first time in regular-season play. The Tigers eliminated the Mountaineers from the 1992 NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., and West Virginia returned the favor in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, beating Mike Anderson’s Tigers 68-59 in the second round in Buffalo, N.Y., on their way to the Final Four.
Ranked No. 89 in ESPN’s latest Ratings Percentage Index projections, the Mountaineers are considered the best team to date on Mizzou’s schedule. The Tigers’ first seven opponents ranged from No. 122 to 346 in the RPI ratings.
Missouri, putting its Division I-best 22-game homecourt winning streak on the line, will be tested further Saturday when Steve Alford brings UCLA to Norm Stewart Court. Alford is in his first season coaching the Bruins after a six-year run at New Mexico.
Led by Jordan Adams’ 21.5 points a game, the Bruins are shooting a blistering 55.3 percent, second-best among Division I teams, and averaging 90.6 points a game. Kyle Anderson, a 6-9 forward, leads the Bruins with 9.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists a game.
“They, too, are very good offensively,” Haith said. “Kyle Anderson’s probably the key in their offense with the way they run things. He’s such a tough matchup because he’s tall and he’s got great instincts. They shoot the ball extremely well. They all can really shoot the ball. Then you throw on top of that his size in the middle with the Wear twins (David and Travis) and (Tony) Parker. They’ve got a really, really good team.”
UCLA is 6-1 all-time against Missouri, including a 97-94 overtime victory over the Tigers last year in Los Angeles.