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WVU takes necessary breather

MORGANTOWN - Have you ever had one of those days when you just wanted to give up, crawl back in bed and start fresh tomorrow?

Well, West Virginia's basketball team has had about a week of those days one right after another.

And so that's pretty much what the Mountaineers are doing right now.

It can't hurt.

"We just need some rest. It's that time of the year,'' senior guard Truck Bryant said. "It's the time when your body's starting to wear down a little bit - the wear and tear and some bumps and bruises, stuff you have to take care of.''

True, this is the time of the season when the physical toll begins to show, especially for a team that might practice as much as any in the country. Bob Huggins is a big believer in hard work and his three-hour practices, while preparing a team for life in the Big East, also wear on bodies, even if they are 18- to 22-year-old bodies.

But what West Virginia is going through right now is far more mental than physical. Monday night's 72-66 loss at home to Pitt was the Mountaineers' third in a row. That just doesn't happen very often to a Huggins-coached team.

You know how many three-game losing streaks Huggins has suffered through since the turn of the century? This is the fourth. He had one at Kansas State in early January of 2007, another to end the 2002-03 season at Cincinnati (including an NCAA tournament game) and another at about this time that same year, with two of the losses to ranked teams.

Think about that. That's 397 games since the 1999-2000 season, and in 385 his teams avoided losing three in a row.

So that kind of dismisses any theory that Huggins just works his players too hard and they're bound to run out of gas.

"Yeah, it's mind and body both,'' Bryant said. "But, yeah, I think it's a lot more mental than it is physical.''

What is the answer to mental fatigue? Well, the same as to physical stress. Rest for a while.

Huggins gave his team Monday off. He will give them today off as well. The Mountaineers don't play again until Sunday at Providence.

While all sorts of things could happen when this team gathers again on Thursday, most feel that nothing should happen until then. They need not only to get away from the game, but from each other.

"Some of these guys need time away from each other. They need time to reflect,'' said senior forward Kevin Jones. "They need time away from the situation and what's going on. I think it would be good if everybody - even the coaching staff - just gets some time to reflect and think about what everybody has to do to make this team better.

"The season's not over by a long shot.''

Indeed, while the fickle will look at back-to-back-to-back losses to St. John's, Syracuse and Pitt as proof that this team is what they thought it was before the season - NIT worthy, perhaps - how many times has a Huggins team accomplished more than anyone thought possible? Consider that West Virginia is now 15-8 against what the RPI judges to be the third-hardest schedule in the country. Did anyone really think that was likely two months ago when WVU was losing to Division II Northern Kentucky in an exhibition or being handed its hat by Kent State on a long-forgotten Tuesday morning at home?

The point is that West Virginia very well could continue to struggle and limp into the Big East tournament with an NIT-like 17 or 18 or 19 wins. But if you're betting on that you are risking your money.

Yes, this team has noticeable deficiencies, and just added another when backup center Kevin Noreen broke his ankle against Pitt. Deniz Kilicli is not a 40-minute player, so Dominique Rutledge has to get a lot better a lot faster than he has to date.

Bryant has to shoot better than 15-for-61 (24.6 percent) from 3-point range, which is what he is over the last eight games. Remember, in the eight games prior to that he was 29-for-67 (43.3 percent), even with a 2-for-10 night thrown in there.

Gary Browne has to continue playing recklessly and make the kinds of plays he made against Syracuse and not the mistakes of Pitt. It would be nice if Jabarie Hinds imposed his will more on offense because he's the only Mountaineer who can really create shots. A still-ailing Kilicli has to make the bunnies after going 3-for-15 in one stretch against Syracuse and Pitt.

And Jones? Well, he has to continue to be Jones. He was 0-for-5 on 3s against Pitt, but that was an aberration. He'll make shots.

The thing is, perhaps a couple of days away will relieve some of the pressure and enable these guys to start fresh, like the guy crawling back in bed and trying it again tomorrow.

Even Huggins is not immune.

"It's really important to me,'' he said when asked the benefits of a break and then raising his hand above eye level. "I'm kind of up to here.''

And oh, by the way, Huggins' last four-game losing streak? Well, not a single one of his players had yet dribbled a basketball when it happened in mid-January of 1989, his first season as a Division I coach, at Akron.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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