Big test on Big Monday for WVU
MORGANTOWN - Chances are, no amount of chemistry or togetherness or countless other intangibles are going to help West Virginia's basketball team unless the Mountaineers are more proficient at some of the basics of the game.
Making shots would help, for example, as would preventing opponents from doing the same. That sounds simplistic, of course, but the Mountaineers are at or near the bottom of the Big 12 in both of those statistical categories. They are among the worst teams in the country, in fact, at making shots.
Still, those intangibles also have to be at work, as well, if West Virginia is to make anything of a season that is approaching the worst in a decade, not to mention one of the worst in Bob Huggins' long coaching career.
It would certainly help if things finally came together tonight at the Coliseum. That's when the Mountaineers (9-10, 2-4 Big 12) face their most daunting task of the season to date. In the first of three ESPN Big Monday games this season, West Virginia hosts No. 3 Kansas (18-1, 6-0). Tipoff is set for shortly after 9 p.m.
But in order to have even a chance of staying with Kansas - winners of a nation's-best 17 straight games and a potential new No. 1 when the polls are released today - West Virginia's focus and attention to detail have to be better. There have been short spurts in recent games when that seemed to be improving.
But then there have been even longer stretches like the one in Saturday's 80-66 loss at Oklahoma State, when the Mountaineers did nothing right and saw a 13-point lead wiped out in less than five minutes and then turned into as much as a 19-point deficit.
And much of that had little to do with shooting and everything to do with focus.
"I'd like to be clairvoyant so I know what they're thinking,'' Huggins said in frustration Saturday in Stillwater. "But I'm not.''
No one knows, of course, but it's an odd thing to be going through, especially for those who have been around a while.
"I don't know what you call it, chemistry or whatever, but before this I knew exactly what everybody was thinking and it was easy to motivate people,'' said senior Deniz Kilicli, by far the most experienced of the Mountaineers. "It was easy to motivate guys when they were down. It just doesn't happen anymore.
"I don't know where everybody's heads are at. And that's a big problem.''
If the Mountaineers aren't all on the same page tonight, it could be a long one. Kansas hasn't lost since a neutral-court, three-point setback to Michigan State on Nov. 13 and seems well on its way to its ninth straight Big 12 regular-season title and 13th in the league's 17 seasons.
The Jayhawks have two potential first-team All-Americans in 7-foot senior shot-blocker Jeff Withey and 6-5 freshman shooting guard Ben McLemore, both of whom are on the midseason Wooden Award Top 25. Travis Releford is a 6-6 senior guard who is one of three starters (along with Withey and guard Elijah Johnson) from the team that lost to Kentucky in last year's national championship game.
So, what are the chances West Virginia comes together and develops some sort of chemistry, if not by tonight then at least before the season completely crumbles apart? Well, it might not happen.
"Sometimes you don't,'' Kilicli said. "I've been on teams that the chemistry never got together.
"But at least everybody had one thing they wanted, which was to win. And so the guys with high egos said, 'Alright, man, I'm just going to buy in and do whatever.' And guys with low self-confidence, they stepped their game up and tried to be a team. And that's when you start winning.''
BRIEFLY: The bad part of playing a Big Monday game is the quick turn-around from a Saturday game. The good part is time off. After tonight, the Mountaineers don't play again until Saturday at Texas Tech. Then they do the same thing over again next week with a Big Monday home game against Texas, followed by time off before a Saturday trip to TCU.
The last team ranked No. 2 in the AP poll that played in Morgantown was UCLA, which lost 70-65 here in 2007. The last AP No. 1 team to play at the Coliseum was Connecticut in 2006. The Huskies won that game, 81-75.
In all, five teams ranked No. 1 in the AP poll have played at the Coliseum - UConn in 2006 and 1999, UMass in 1995, Temple in 1988 and UNLV in 1983. West Virginia beat only one of those teams, UNLV.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.