Effort may be there, consistency isn't
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's beginning to sound like a broken record, this assertion - an insistence, really - by Bob Huggins and almost everyone connected to West Virginia's basketball program that the Mountaineers are a pretty good team.
Or, more accurately, that they have the potential to be a pretty good basketball team.
The fact of the matter, though, is that after a dozen games West Virginia is exactly where it was a season ago. The Mountaineers are 7-5. Ahead of them are 18 Big 12 games and one more in the non-conference.
Last year's team won only six more games and finished 13-19. So what is the guarantee that this one won't finish similarly?
Well, there is none. But despite virtually no hard evidence in the form of wins over quality opponents to date, Huggins remains optimistic.
"Last year our problem wasn't talent. We didn't play well together and we didn't play hard,'' Huggins said. "This team plays hard. You can't say they don't play hard.''
Indeed, you can't say they aren't talented, either. No, they aren't Kansas talented or Kentucky talented, but who is other than Kansas and Kentucky?
Here's the problem, though. So far that talent hasn't meshed into a group that plays at a high level.
Take Sunday's 73-70 loss to Purdue, for instance. The same two players who have been West Virginia's best this season - junior guard Juwan Staten and sophomore guard Eron Harris - once again played fairly well. This time, Devin Williams joined them with probably his best performance of the season, 20 points, 12 rebounds and near-perfect free-throw shooting, the latter having been one of his weakest points.
But if you're looking for an example of this team's inconsistencies so far this season, Williams' performance is a perfect one. That monster game against Purdue came on the heels of a four-point, four-rebound game against Marshall. Near the end of November he had two straight double-doubles, averaging 11.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, but then had two points in a loss to Wisconsin.
That's not to point directly at Williams, of course. The truth is he's been more of a pleasant surprise this season (10.1 points, 7.9 rebounds) than anyone and has shown up plenty of times. But the point is that Staten and Harris show up almost every game and not everyone else does. And that's the perfect recipe for inconsistency.
Throw in a guy like Terry Henderson, who seems to be rounding into form but couldn't make a shot against Purdue, and an emerging Brandon Watkins and there are actually plenty of components to make this team exactly what Huggins insists that it is - which is far better than last year.
But not until all off them get on the same page.
Granted, it's probably unfair to look simply at the won-lost record and paint both last year's team and this year's with the same brush because they have the same record after 12 games. The schedules the two teams played were far different, if not in the relative strength of the opposition then certainly in how the schedule broke. For instance, in getting to 7-5 last season WVU had to win its 10th, 11th and 12th games against bad basketball teams. This group got to 7-5 by going 1-3 in its ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th games against Missouri, Gonzaga, Marshall and Purdue.
"The caliber of teams we're playing is different and the styles of the games are a lot different,'' Staten said. "We're not closing out games, but it's not even close to last year.''
Still, regardless of how the teams got there, they both faced to same dilemma - a full Big 12 slate plus one and a need to start winning games. Last year's group beat no one in the non-conference schedule that helped their resume, then failed miserably in the Big 12, winning only the six games against the three teams at the bottom of the standings. This year's team also beat no one in the non-conference schedule that helped their resume. So like last year's team, they have to rely entirely on league play to make a statement.
"We still have an opportunity to do what we need to do,'' Harris said. "We have the opportunity in Big 12 play to get done the things we need to get done.''
So did last year's team. This one still has to prove that it's different.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1