WVU faces UMass under weight of more drama unfolding around the Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — There will be a WVU men’s basketball game Saturday, that much we can be sure of.

It will be played in Springfield, Mass., the site of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

A year ago, the Hall of Fame was a symbol of endorsement toward the WVU hoops program with the enshrinement of former head coach Bob Huggins.

A year later, this Hall of Fame Classic match-up against UMass (5-2) has taken on a whole other meaning.

In the case of the Mountaineers (4-5), much that now defines the program hasn’t come from action on a basketball court, but rather a court of law.

Other off-the-court issues led to Huggins’ resignation that took on national appeal once he began to challenge that resignation this past summer.

That led to Josh Eilert’s hiring as an interim coach, and he’s now overseeing a program once again in the national spotlight due to what may end up being a historic legal action involving guard RaeQuan Battle and the NCAA.

The details of that case are ongoing. In short, it’s become a federal battle to force the NCAA to alter or completely kill its current transfer rules.

The NCAA responded Thursday to a 14-day temporary restraining order (TRO) levied by a federal court in Wheeling to halt the enforcement of those rules, stating that any previously ineligible athletes who play during the TCO may lose a year of eligibility if the NCAA were to ultimately win the case.

It’s that response that may keep Battle and teammate Noah Farrakhan — both sitting out, because they are two-time transfers — out of action for WVU, which has yet to issue any type of statement if the two will play against the Minutemen.

There are some things we do know, beginning with this game marking the return of point guard Kerr Kriisa — he having been dealt a nine-game suspension by the NCAA for accepting improper benefits while still enrolled at Arizona.

“You could see it in his eyes that he’ll be able to compete under the lights. He’s turned it up a notch,” Eilert said. “He’s excited to run the show, and that’s what we brought him in here to do. I don’t know what his game legs will be like. Kerr has practiced, but he has missed those game reps. Game reps and practice reps can be different.”

We also know WVU’s focus will be on UMass forwards Josh Cohen and Matt Cross, who combine to score 34 points and grab 16 rebounds per game.

“(UMass is) really good at offensive rebounding — top 10 in the country — and also second-chance points,” Eilert said.

Still, the impossible task will once again be out of reach for Eilert and his players, which is to say make what happens on the court bigger than the drama that is unfolding around the team off the court.

That drama hasn’t been limited to just a coaching change, which would be one thing.

It’s included Kriisa’s suspension and the return of forward Akok Akok, who missed seven games after a scary collapse in an exhibition game before the season began.

Freshman guard Ofri Naveh, a native of Israel, is dealing on a daily basis with the hardships that come with a war being fought in his home country.

And now a federal court fight surrounds the program, a fight that only has the possible future of the NCAA hanging in the balance.

In so many ways, this season has already developed into more than what anyone signed up for, likely most of all Eilert.

“I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t affected me,” he said. “There’s a lot of challenges I went through. “Has it affected me? Probably a little, but I go home to a wife that has a great head on her shoulders. She keeps things in perspective. I have that going for me.

“I look at a huge growth opportunity for myself as well. Some people say coaches can go a decade and not go through the type of challenges you went through in six months. I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as taking care of business and representing this university and my family.”


WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: MassMutual Center, Springfield, Mass.
TV: ESPNU (Comcast 266, HD 853; DirecTV 208; DISH 141)
WEB: dominionpost.com