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Mountaineers' slow start

AP Photo
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins' points are generally not getting through to the Mountaineers.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - To say that the pre-Big 12 Conference portion of West Virginia's basketball season did not go smoothly would be an understatement of epic proportions.

No one expected the Mountaineers to be just 7-5 heading into Saturday's 4 p.m. home game against Oklahoma, least of all Bob Huggins.

Oh, sure, there were to be rough spots. The schedule to date is ranked No. 40 in the RPI, which might not sound all that daunting until one realizes 307 teams have faced lesser slates.

Four of the players being counted upon in the rotation are in their first seasons, too - transfers Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray and freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris. Four more are in just their second seasons - Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne, Keaton Miles and Dominique Rutledge.

If you're counting, that's eight of the nine players who saw time in WVU's last game before the calendar turned to 2013, a 74-67 win over Eastern Kentucky. And the one real veteran is Deniz Kilicli, whose season to date has been uneven, to put it most charitably.

Given that strength of schedule and relative inexperience, some glitches were to be expected.

What wasn't anticipated, however, was a lack of improvement as November turned to December and now to January. It annoys Huggins to no end.

"It's incredibly frustrating to have to say the same thing day after day after day after day,'' he said after that win over EKU. "It's incredibly frustrating. They just keep doing the same things."

By that he means the same wrong things, not the right ones.

On Saturday, the Mountaineers get a bit of a do-over in their first-ever Big 12 game. As luck would have it, they faced Oklahoma quite by accident of fate in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., on Thanksgiving weekend. The two were placed in opposite brackets in order to make a game between them less likely, but they wound up in the third-place game. Oklahoma won 77-70.

Since that time, the Sooners (9-3) have won five of seven, but like the Mountaineers have no real signature victories. Oklahoma's best win might be a 64-54 home victory over a 9-3 Texas A&M team, but the Sooners followed that three days later by losing at home to Stephen F. Austin.

For now, though, Huggins doesn't appear to be as concerned with Oklahoma or any other Big 12 team as he is with his own. The Mountaineers' own shortcomings have to be addressed first and it begins, he said, with a simple desire to play the kind of hard-nosed basketball he wants from all his teams.

He thought he saw some of that when WVU fairly manhandled Eastern Kentucky and took a 16-point lead in the first half, but the Mountaineers gave every bit of that and then some away before rallying to win.

"They're nice kids, they really are. I don't have any issues. They're nice, they're cordial, they're good folk,'' Huggins said of his players. "But as soon as school starts I'll find a hell of a lot of those in the library, too. And I don't think they can play, either.''

Again, there are times when this West Virginia team looks like it might be making progress, Huggins said. But as soon as one of those moments pops up, it's quickly replaced by one of these from the EKU game:

"When you've got a guy trapped under the basket, you don't run in there. That might be the dumbest thing I've ever seen in a basketball game,'' Huggins said. "You run in there and triple-team a guy who wasn't going to score over two 6-9 guys to start with and leave open a guy wide open in the corner for a 3? A guy who just happens to be their leading scorer, by the way. And then it happened a second time.''

The second time the mistake was made by someone else, someone who had seen the first player make that crucial mistake from the bench and replaced him because of it. Then he made the same one.

"I was different, I guess,'' Huggins said of his own playing day. "If I saw some guy get taken out of a game for doing something wrong I wasn't going to do that. I might screw up doing a lot of other things, but I wasn't doing that. I wanted to stay in the game."

Perhaps some of West Virginia's problems can't be fixed by simple repetition. The Mountaineers have not shot the ball well all season, but the hope is that the cause is just bad luck. Many of WVU's shooters aren't as bad as they have been and odds are some of those shots will eventually drop.

But as for the dumb mistakes, well, Huggins can't tolerate them, but he does take responsibility for them.

"I recruited them and I've got to fix it,'' Huggins said. "I understand that."

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

Saturday's 4 p.m. game at the Coliseum will be the fourth basketball meeting between West Virginia and Oklahoma, and the first not played on a neutral floor. A look at the first three:

  • Dec. 22, 2005, in the All-College Classic in Oklahoma City, Okla.: West Virginia 92, Oklahoma 68
  • Dec. 29, 2007, at the Charleston Civic Center: Oklahoma 88, West Virginia 82, double overtime
  • Nov. 25, 2012, in the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.:  Oklahoma 77, West Virginia 70

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