MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Maybe the line is as fine as Bob Huggins suggests, this gap between West Virginia playing good teams close and actually closing out good teams.
Maybe the difference is as narrow as a possession or two. A single boxout, a lone defensive rotation, a rebound unclutched. Such was the eulogy Sunday afternoon from a 73-70 loss to Purdue.
“One more play,” said West Virginia forward Devin Williams.
Perhaps the distance between a 7-5 record and something approximating an adequate nonconference showing really is microscopic.
But considering how often this WVU storyline has repeated itself this season, maybe the microscope is calibrated incorrectly. These Mountaineers—likable, energetic and functional at their best—are an improvement over last year’s team, but let’s never overlook how low a bar last year’s team set.
Through 12 games, West Virginia NOW should no longer be compared to West Virginia THEN. The only comparables that matter currently are how WVU stacks up against decent teams, and as Sunday showed once again, the Mountaineers don’t measure up.
They’re 7-0 against teams with an RPI of 232 and lower, and 0-5 against teams 131 and higher. There’s a pretty distinct line, if ever one existed. Purdue came to Morgantown as that 131st-rated team, by the way—a preseason pick to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten, a team that had dropped three of four away from its home arena. And it fielded a roster heavily reliant upon youth, with four freshmen and three sophomores among its top nine minute producers.
Yet once the Boilermakers snatched a two-point lead just before halftime, WVU could never snatch it back. Three times in the second half West Virginia had shots to tie or lead. All three opportunities came on open looks, and all three missed.
• Down 55-52, Terry Henderson launched a 3 from the wing. Not close.
• Down 58-56, Nathan Adrian sized up a straight-on 24-footer. It barely grazed the front rim.
• Down 63-60, Eron Harris took his turn from the wing. Clang.
A fourth opportunity to tie came amid far more duress at game’s end: Harris hurrying into the forecourt with 4.3 seconds left after Terone Johnson’s missed free throw gave WVU a final crack. Harris launched from the left wing, about 25 feet out, only to have Johnson block the shot as time and hope expired.
Based on West Virginia finishing 3-of-18 from 3-point range, you never would have known Huggins had stocked his lineup with perimeter shooters. Henderson went 1-of-6 from deep, Adrian was 0-for-3, and junior college transfer Remi Dibo celebrated his first start at WVU by going 0-of-2 on a scoreless day.
“We’re not going to make them all, but we’ve got to make some,” Huggins said.
Said Henderson, at a loss to explain the contagion of cold shooting: “Everybody has bad days. We had some wide-open looks. We just couldn’t put the ball in the hole.”
Now WVU finds itself in a hole, needing a strong Big 12 run against a league ranked No. 1 in the RPI.
With even a couple wins from the lost bag of Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Missouri or Purdue, WVU might have been able to go .500 in the league and warrant a look from selection committee. Now West Virginia likely needs an 11-7 conference finish to harbor bubble hopes.
Huggins, having itemized a list of possessions that might have spelled a different outcome against Purdue, leaned on his refrain from recent postgame news conferences: “We really are pretty close.”
One play away, they said. One rebound. One jumper. One defensive stop. Viewed through the narrow lens of Sunday’s loss, it seems WVU is very close. But when the circumstances keep repeating themselves, you have to ask how close are they really?