'Behind the 8 ball'
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Taken individually, the failings of West Virginia's basketball team to date have been disappointing.
Taken collectively, they are rather ominous.
Through 12 of 13 non-conference games and one Big 12 home contest, the Mountaineers are but 7-6. Although it is an outdated concept, the notion of winning 20 games and perhaps qualifying for a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance dim by the day. Reaching such a goal by the end of the regular season would require at worst a 13-5 mark in the remaining games, all but one of them scheduled in one of the most competitive conferences in the country.
It gets worse: Given that 10 of those final 18 games are on the road - beginning with the Big 12 game at 9 tonight against Texas in Austin - even guaranteeing a winning record by the time postseason bids are handed out will require a better record (10-8) against the most difficult part of the schedule than was brokered in the first two months of play. And WVU has yet to win a true road game, losing its only two at Gonzaga and Duquesne.
Of course, none of that is lost on Bob Huggins. The West Virginia coach knows exactly where his team is and what it is up against.
"In all honesty, we've put ourselves behind the 8 ball,'' Huggins said. "We need to win games. It's really pretty simple. We've got to win games.''
Had the Mountaineers not let even two games get away in which they held double-digit leads in the second half (Duquesne and Oklahoma), they would be in significantly better shape. Throw in a third winnable game against Davidson (an eight-point lead) and WVU's record now would be 10-3.
Those games are gone, though, which means nearly every winnable game now is close to a must-win game. That starts tonight against Texas (8-6, 0-1 Big 12), which finds itself in much the same predicament as the Mountaineers.
Neither Huggins nor Texas coach Rick Barnes are taking it with a grain of salt.
"The one thing we both know is that we've both had programs that have played at the very highest level, and that's the standard we both believe in,'' Barnes said. "And regardless of what other people might think of our teams, I know what [Huggins'] expectations are and I know what my expectations are. I haven't watched [West Virginia] a lot, but I know that right now that our team's not living up to the expectations we expect this program to live up to.''
The reasons are similar. Texas, which is without preseason All-Big 12 guard Myck Kabongo until Feb. 13 because of a 23-game NCAA suspension, is relying on a relatively inexperienced group of players. The five starters in Saturday's overtime loss at Baylor included two freshmen and three sophomores. Everyone else who played - the Longhorns generally go about 10 deep - was also a freshman or sophomore.
West Virginia has a slightly older roster, but only one player on the entire roster - senior Deniz Kilicli - is playing beyond his first or second season in the program.
"Very talented. Extremely talented,'' Huggins said of the Longhorns. "I think Rick's done a great job with a bunch of young guys. He's got them playing like they're veterans. They're not playing like they're a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.''
Well, at times they are, witness the 8-6 record that includes only three wins over major-conference opponents. Then again, one of those wins was an 18-point rout of North Carolina the week before Christmas.
"I know they're young, but as coaches you can't accept that,'' Barnes said. "Sometimes maybe we're unrealistic that way because there are some things they're going through that they haven't gone through. But they think they're older than they are, so if they think that way they ought to play like they're older than they are.''
Texas gets much of its scoring from a backcourt of sophomores Sheldon McClellan (15.6 points per game) and Julien Lewis (11.8) and freshman point guard Javan Felix (9.6, 6.6 assists), but also has muscle in the form of 6-foot-7, 239-pound sophomore Jonathan Holmes (7.2 points, 7.6 assists) and 6-9, 270-pound freshman Cameron Ridley (5.5 points, 5.4 rebounds). There are also three big freshmen coming off the bench - 6-10 Prince Ibeh, 6-9 Connor Lammert and 6-8 Ioannis Papapetrou.
That inside muscle figures to pose a particular problem for West Virginia, which has not rebounded or scored well inside. The Longhorns lead the NCAA in field goal percentage defense (.339) and 3-point defense (.238) and are second in the Big 12 in blocked shots.
But how Texas will play is just as much a mystery most games as how West Virginia will play.
"We are who we are right now. We're an 8-6 team and that's who we are,'' Barnes said. "And we're an 8-6 team for a reason, because we haven't been consistently tough enough to do the things that are necessary to win basketball games.
"Like Bobby, I don't know what to expect. We probably neither one know what to expect.''
WVU beat the Longhorns 80-79 in the Far West Classic in Oregon in 1973.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.