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Playing together will be key again for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It would be easy to glance at West Virginia's schedule and results so far through a bit less than one-third of the basketball season and draw an obvious conclusion.

Against bad teams, the Mountaineers are usually pretty good. Against the good ones? Well, not so much.

It's really pretty hard to argue otherwise. West Virginia has won six of its first nine games, largely against teams prone to strike fear into the hearts of no one. It's hard even to pick the best of the bunch among those that WVU has beaten because for the most part they've not played anyone, either,

Two of the three losses came against No. 8 Wisconsin and still-unbeaten Missouri, teams that are going to be hard to beat for just about anyone. The other was against Virginia Tech, which actually has played pretty well, but even after 20 or 30 games this season that's still likely to be the head-scratchingest result all season.

The original point, though, still seems valid. West Virginia is 6-3 almost as much because it's played six teams that pretty much anyone from a power conference should beat and lost to the teams that put up a fight. Even Bob Huggins can't - and won't - argue otherwise.

Here's what he will argue, though, and he might have a point: It's not quite as simple as the quality of the opposition, but rather how his team approaches those opponents. When the Mountaineers begin running up and down the floor against similarly skilled - or superiorly skilled - teams, they forget a critical point.

"We can't get out of character,'' Huggins said. "We've got to hope our five guys play better together than the other team's five guys.''

Indeed, that's the only way this team is going to succeed. It's pretty much the only way West Virginia has ever succeeded, at least since the days when Jerry West was replacing Rod Hundley as a future NBA star. In the half a century since, almost every time West Virginia succeeded - no matter the coach - it was with overachievers playing together. If you think not, check those NBA rosters since West and get back to me if you run out of ink jotting all the names down (not likely since there have been all of nine in the last 50 years).

No, in truth this is almost the prototypical West Virginia team as far as makeup is concerned. I don't necessarily mean the way the roster is structured by position, but there seem to be enough guys who can play at a fairly high level - including scoring - that if they play together they can do some really nice things as the season goes along. And, because there are no seniors, as next season goes along, too.

"We're going to win some games,'' Huggins said. "We ARE going to win some games.''

It's not all going to happen at once, though. A team with two sophomores, three freshmen and a junior college transfer in its nine-man rotation isn't going to succeed right away if teamwork is the goal. (With apologies to the likes of Kansas and Kentucky, teamwork isn't quite as important if everyone in your rotation is at a rest stop on the way to the NBA). That's why this team is likely to be much better at the end of the season than at the beginning, and still better next year.

But in order to get there, games like the one Thursday night at Missouri have to be an aberration. This team can't win a few games and then suddenly think it is better than it is. That seemed to be Huggins' chief complaint after an 80-71 loss that didn't deserve to go in the books as only a nine-point defeat (oddly, Missouri beat UCLA Saturday by the same score to go to 9-0). His team strutted out there and everyone tried to prove how good HE was instead of how good THEY could be.

"We're shooting step-back 3s off the dribble. We're not going to make those,'' Huggins said. "We don't need to try to manufacture shots that we can't make. We need to manufacture something that we can.''

In part, perhaps you have to chalk that up to youth. Huggins was asked if perhaps his team's out-of-the-system play might say something about the maturity of this team.

"It says a lot about our lack of maturity,'' Huggins said.

Which, again, will improve with time and experience. In fact, it may have improved from beginning to end in just that Thursday night game. Granted, Missouri may have lost a bit of interest leading by 25 points, but West Virginia fought back to within six points in the final minute.

"We're not going to quit,'' Huggins said. "I've only had one team that ever quit.''

And that might illustrate better than anything how much improved - and certainly how much more fun to watch - this team is over last year's 13-19 squad.

"We didn't quit,'' Huggins said. "You know we'd have laid it down last year. There'd have been guys taking just the worst shots in the world and then somebody else would take a worse one than that.

"We just tried to do too many things we can't do.''

And this might not be the last example. West Virginia has 22 games remaining and it's quite likely that not a single one fits into the category of most of the teams the Mountaineers have vanquished to date. It's probably unrealistic to believe that they won't have a few more episodes like the one at Missouri and they might have to fight through them.

 "You'd hope not,'' Huggins said. "It's already happened a few times.''

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

 


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