WVU hoping to join the Big 12 'haves'
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Chances seem pretty good that by early Saturday evening West Virginia's basketball team will be on a three-game winning streak.
The number is at two right now after a sometimes-sloppy win at Texas Tech and Monday's 60-58 survival-test win against Texas. On Saturday the Mountaineers go back to Texas for the second straight weekend and on the road for the fourth consecutive Saturday to face TCU, which has yet to win a single game this (calendar) year.
This is exactly what the Mountaineers were hoping for, of course, after falling to 9-10 on Jan. 26 and coming to the stark realization that unless things took a turn for the better right away the season would be lost. They played well but lost to Kansas, and then began this string of games against the most beatable teams remaining on the schedule. Two wins are in the books, and if a third doesn't follow on Saturday in Fort Worth, well, the discussion is pretty much moot anyway.
It does, however, beg the question of whether West Virginia is actually getting better or just taking advantage of an opportunity to make some hay against a collection of teams in even worse shape.
Know that from the Mountaineers' perspective, they aren't exactly gloating over their recent short-term success. They seem to understand the two basic truisms involved here - one, that they're not exactly playing and beating the Miami Heat here and, two, that they've put together mini-streaks like this before and failed to sustain them.
"We can't worry about who we're playing and how good they are,'' said sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds, who came up big in Monday's win over Texas with 14 points, some solid shooting and some rather dazzling drives to the basket. "We just have to play the way we know how and keep winning, one at a time.''
If nothing else, West Virginia seems to be separating itself from those other teams at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. Not that that's a particularly noteworthy accomplishment, mind you, but hey, baby steps, right?
The league to date seems acutely divided into haves and have-nots. There are six teams at the top of the standings, all of which have NCAA tournament-viable resumes to one degree or another. Kansas can fall down and sleep for the next month and still make the field; Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State need only maintain what they've been doing, Iowa State can get in simply by extending what is now a 19-game home winning streak, and Baylor needs only one or two more good wins to be safe.
And then there are the bottom four teams, who had a combined 39-45 record going into Tuesday, none of them over .500. All four have losing records in Big 12 play, as opposed to the top six, all of whom are at least two games over .500 in the league.
If West Virginia is accomplishing nothing else these days it is proving that it is the best of those four, having gone 4-0 against the other three so far. It could very well be 6-0 after Saturday's game at TCU and one a week later at home against Texas Tech.
But that doesn't elevate the Mountaineers into that top six. Maybe it creates a third middle level, but that's about all.
The idea, though, is to use these games as an opportunity to build some confidence and some momentum. There's a mid-week game at Baylor a week from today before the rematch with Texas Tech, and then it becomes somewhat brutal once more. There are road games at Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma and home games against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State to finish the season.
Maybe this team steals a win at Baylor and takes the two sandwiched around it against TCU and Tech and suddenly is on a five-game winning streak. After Baylor, three of the next four are at home, so that's a plus. A seven-game winning streak? Not out of the realm of possibility.
Granted, that would still leave WVU at just 16-11 with trips to Kansas and Oklahoma up next, and that's not exactly the position you want to be in. It's not even bubble. But at least the bubble is in sight, and for a team that at the end of January was 9-11, that's all one can ask.
All of this, of course, is simply best case scenario stuff. Beating Texas Tech and Texas doesn't mean this team is any better than it was a week or a month before. It just means that Texas Tech and Texas, now losers of 13 of their last 19 games, were on the schedule. Up next is a TCU team certain to have lost nine straight by Saturday after playing Kansas tonight.
But there are signs of hope that at least the Mountaineers can hang onto. There's the momentum gained. There's better health, what with Terry Henderson playing regularly again and Matt Humphrey perhaps returning Saturday. Eron Harris and Jabarie Hinds are becoming scorers, Aaric Murray wakes up and makes at least one or two stunning plays a game and Deniz Kilicli has actually had good games against some good interior players of late.
"And before we didn't guard,'' coach Bob Huggins said. "We're starting to guard better.''
Maybe this is all just a mirage. In fact, history suggests just that. If West Virginia wins at TCU on Saturday it will be the team's third three-game winning streak of the season. Neither of the others made it to four.
But at this point, it's all the Mountaineers have.
"We just have to win games, maybe all of them,'' Kilicli said. "But you can only win one at a time.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.