Kansas loss shows importance of experience
MORGANTOWN - West Virginia's basketball team endured more than just a loss Saturday against No. 6 Kansas.
No, losses have become pretty much routine for the Mountaineers, who now have four of them in a row, five in the last six games, 10 in the Big 12 and 16 for the season. At 13-16 overall and 6-10 in the Big 12, they are virtually assured, in fact, of losing more games than they win and exceeding the number of games Bob Huggins has ever lost in one winter.
About the only low-water mark West Virginia will avoid is losing 20 games. They can't do that unless they are invited to a postseason tournament, which is also now all but impossible.
Again, though, this was more than a loss. A 91-65 defeat didn't set a record for margin or futility and it wasn't even WVU's worst performance of a season filled with bad performances.
Instead, it was a lesson and an example. It was a lesson in what a wealth of both talent and experience can do for a team, and an example of what a team with both of those look like.
In other words, it was an illustration of everything West Virginia is not.
"You watch them and you see what experience does for a team,'' West Virginia freshman Eron Harris said of the Jayhawks. "It would be nice to have that, but right now we don't.''
Indeed, Saturday's game at Allen Fieldhouse did more than just point to the basic difference between the two teams, which is that Kansas is very good and WVU is not. While West Virginia will spend the postseason at home for the first time in a decade, Kansas could very well play deep into March and perhaps April in pursuit of a national championship.
No, it also provided a striking contrast in the makeup of the two teams at this stage.
West Virginia has one senior on its entire roster who has been in the program his entire career, Deniz Kilicli. It has another in his second year after junior college, Dominique Rutledge, and a third who stopped by for a year and made WVU his third college in four years, Matt Humphrey.
And that's three more seniors than West Virginia might have on its roster next season. The only junior is Aaric Murray, whose return seems less than certain, and so experience isn't going to be at a premium next year, either.
Kansas? Well, the Jayhawks start four seniors, three of whom redshirted and are in their fifth season in college. And even the fifth starter and best player on the team, Ben McLemore, is more than just a freshman, having been at Kansas last year sitting out because of academics and practicing with the team during the second semester.
"They have a lot of guys who have been there a long time,'' said another of West Virginia's freshmen, Terry Henderson. "They know how to play the game.''
There is, of course, no substitute for experience. Well, perhaps over-the-top talent works on occasion, but besides Kentucky, who wins year after year with fresh talent alone? Think back to West Virginia's last great team, the Final Four group of 2010. It was made up primarily of seniors and juniors with only a handful of younger players (Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant) mixed in.
That was the kind of team that could play like Kansas plays, with confidence and a swagger. Look at the number of alley-oop dunks the Jayhawks got against West Virginia.
"They have an experienced team that lives for those opportunities,'' Harris said. "When they saw the chance for an alley-oop, they took it. They know how to play the game.''
The experience gap for West Virginia is not going to go away in a hurry. That's the thing about experience, it takes time to accumulate. Arguably the two best players on WVU's roster are Harris and Henderson, neither of whom will be seniors until 2015-16.
Granted, the rather large group of sophomores this season will be largely third-year juniors next season. That's not bad as far as experience goes. The trouble is, by next season maybe half of those guys will be gone. Huggins has not hidden his disappointment with many in that class who have played, and others have been relegated to the bench for most of the season. It's hard to imagine there won't be some movement there.
All of which leaves the Mountaineers rebuilding, at least to a point, again. Four freshmen are already signed for next year. Huggins has hinted that the number of newcomers could double. Junior college guys and transfers can't be counted out.
Little of that will serve to immediately solve the experience problem, but perhaps it might provide a needed infusion of talent. That was something else that was evident in the game at Kansas, the gap in talent.
Until that happens, though, this year's Mountaineers must muddle through. There are two regular-season games remaining this week - Wednesday at Oklahoma and Saturday at home against Iowa State - before the Big 12 tournament. Then the long offseason.
"We're not giving up. We're still playing,'' Henderson said. "We'll play right to the very end.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1