Potential is there, but how far will WVU take it?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The reality of the situation for West Virginia's basketball team after what amounts to pretty much one-third of the season is this: The Mountaineers have discovered that potential will get you only so far.
It might be worth a few wins, at least as long as the teams they're playing don't have the same kind of potential. Face the teams that do and it's an uphill battle.
West Virginia has now lost three of four after a 5-1 start. That's reality.
But this is, too: All three of those losses were by single digits to teams now in the Top 25 - No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 20 Gonzaga and No. 24 Missouri. Combined, those teams were 28-1 through Tuesday.
Bob Huggins knows that. He also knows all about the potential that West Virginia seems to hold. Shoot, he's been front and center in espousing it.
But he also knows that 10 of the season's 31 games are already in the rear-view mirror. And while he famously grates at any mention of glancing into that mirror - "This truck ain't got one, son, 'cause we're not going backwards'' - he also knows that inch by inch, game by game, opportunities are slipping away.
"I think we can beat everybody we've played. Given another chance at the end of the year, I think we can beat everybody we've played to this point,'' Huggins said. "We're going to continue to get better and better and better. But at the same time, we've got to win enough games to be able to do that.''
True. If the Mountaineers don't start winning a few of those games that seem winnable, they may never get a chance to show how far they have come at the end of the year. If the NCAA tournament is the goal - and when isn't it? - these games matter.
The reason West Virginia hasn't been able to win them is simple - that potential has yet to be realized. There's no question it is there. This is a team with athletic perimeter players, good shooters and size everywhere except in the middle.
Yes, that's a concern, the most pressing one, in fact. Unless Jonathan Holton miraculously becomes eligible for the second semester, freshman Devin Williams is pretty much the only offensive option under the basket. He's improving, true, but still has a long way to go.
But if West Virginia can parlay those shooters and athletes and size everywhere else into something consistent, that will go a long way toward this team fulfilling its potential.
The problem is there has been very little consistency. The hope is that it will come with time, but for now there are lapses that just can't be overcome.
Take that 80-76 loss to Gonzaga at the Coliseum Tuesday night. Both offensively and defensively there were glaring holes.
On offense, when Gonzaga made it a point to shut down Eron Harris after he'd scored 18 first-half points, WVU had no answer. The Zags gambled that no one else could beat them and no one else did. They left Gary Browne virtually unguarded and he missed three open shots and turned the ball over once in just two minutes with West Virginia up by eight. Williams was ignored at the foul line and out on the baseline and he missed 10 of his 13 shots.
"Basically what they said was that [Harris] wasn't going to beat them, that some of these other guys are going to have to beat them,'' Huggins said. "So they didn't guard some of our guys. Every time I try to do that, [those other guys] make them.''
The defensive errors were few, but critical and all bunched together. After losing most of a 10-point second-half lead, WVU watched Gonzaga make its inevitable run. The Zags turned a 64-56 deficit with eight minutes to play into just a 66-65 hole in about half the remaining time, but who didn't expect that? Then it was crunch time, which is what games are all about.
And then Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga's best player, made three straight 3-point shots. Not contested shots, but fairly wide-open attempts.
"Everybody in the country knows that when Gonzaga needs points, he's going to shoot,'' point guard Juwan Staten said. "Even people who don't watch basketball know that. And we had five guys on the floor who didn't.''
Well, actually they did. They just didn't do anything about it.
Of course, the first step in solving a problem is realizing you have a problem, and so Staten and the Mountaineers apparently have taken at least that first step.
There are plenty more in front of them, of course. Saturday brings the annual game with Marshall at the Civic Center. There's a game with 8-2 Purdue at home a week from Sunday, a potentially tricky trap game with William & Mary back in Charleston a week later and then 18 Big 12 games.
It's time for potential to become, well, whatever it's going to become.
"We're so close,'' Huggins said. "We're so close to being pretty good. But at the same time, we're so far away.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.