MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s basketball journey to this point—spikes in optimism abated by moments of stinging reality—leaves the team right on pace with preseason projections.
Unfortunately for Mountaineers fans, those projections weren’t flattering.
Picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, West Virginia (10-7, 2-2) certainly seems incapable of contending for a league title (OK, so we figured that much), and it now faces harsh odds of even cracking the league’s upper half.
Road wins at Texas Tech and TCU that restoked fans’ appetite at the outset of conference play were quickly doused by home losses to Oklahoma State and Texas. Barring a dramatic turn over the 15 guaranteed games remaining, WVU is destined to sit out postseason play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2002 and 2003.
Monday’s 80-69 loss to the Longhorns—the first time WVU has been completely overpowered this season—came at the hands of an opponent that was not only younger but also picked beneath West Virginia in the preseason. Watching Texas rip rebounds, locate open shots and control the action, the truth became obvious: Rick Barnes has jerked UT out of its one-year malaise, while Bob Huggins needs more time to fix what ails his program.
It also became obvious that West Virginia needed more time to recover from that gut-punch loss to Oklahoma State, which slipped away in the final 16 seconds. The demeanors of various Mountaineers after that loss seemed particularly deflated—almost like a team that had been eliminated from an NCAA tourney game. It felt like a line-in-the-sand moment, and when Markel Brown’s 3-pointer effectively erased the line, WVU didn’t fully reboot for Texas.
That was a matter of psyche, but Huggins’ roster also has constraints of skill and physicality:
— Low-post scoring, which figured to be a weakness from the moment Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton encountered eligibility issues, has been even spottier than expected. WVUs only dump-it-inside threat, Devin Williams, has struggled to score against the taller defenders from Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Purdue, TCU and Texas, making only 15-of-48 shots. As Huggins informed a Texas beat writer after Williams went 1-for-7 Monday night: “What are we 10-7? We’ve suffered inside for 17 games.”
— Lanky freshman Brandon Watkins has provided interior defense, but despite possessing a nice midrange jumper, he hasn’t made much of a dent offensively. In 10 games against top-200 RPI teams, he has six baskets.
— Remi Dibo has attempted only 12 free throws all season, an indicator he isn’t comfortable—or capable?— of slashing to the basket like he did on the junior college level. The 6-7 forward’s subsistence on 3-point shooting, where admittedly he’s knocking down a respectable 40 percent, makes it easier for defenses to account for him.
— Freshman Nathan Adrian is Dibo to the extreme, having attempted only three free throws total, despite playing more than 17 minutes per game. The Morgantown product will spend the offseason trying to expand his game.
— Without Macon and Holton, WVU hoped to mask its rebounding deficiencies with taller wings like Adrian and Dibo, but they have combined for only six boards per game in 36 minutes. Neither has much slack been picked up by Kevin Noreen, who in 16 minutes of action has averaged more fouls (2.6) than boards (2.5). Overall, West Virginia’s plus-2.1 rebounding margin ranks 65th out of 83 power-conference teams. “We sure as hell don’t rebound it the way we rebounded it in the past, so we have to make shots,” Huggins said.
— Gary Browne, who showed early dividends of offseason work on his shooting, is in a 4-of-21 slump since the Marshall game.
— Eron Harris made only 1-of-13 from 3-point range during WVU’s two-game homestand and 6-of-22 overall. He’s averaging 17.4 points per game but produced a total of 16 points in those two losses. While you certainly expect more from the Big 12’s third-leading scorer, it’s clear Harris isn’t among the league’s most feared offensive players … at least not yet. Right now he’s a decent player still acclimating to the attention given him by defenses, not a player capable of carrying a team.
“I’m wondering what the answer is,” Harris said after the Texas defeat. “What’s the answer for me individually? What’s the answer for us? How can I get myself going? I’m tired of losing, there are a lot of things inside of me right now.
“But we’re not going to give up. We’ve got a long way to go,” Harris contended. “If somebody believes this is the end of the world right now, they’re wrong.”
As Harris seeks to regain his mojo, it’s crucial teammates keep focus on developmental tasks—namely freshmen learning the offense and the Macon/Holton duo satisfying eligibility requirements for next season. If somebody believes this team is capable of any greater heights during the interim, they’re likely wrong, too.