MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Third Street in Morgantown is as terrifying a roadway as one can encounter when they’ve spent three decades living in places with the topography of a pool table.
When moving from a stop while driving uphill, something terrible happens when you take your foot from the brake to the gas pedal. You start rolling backwards.
It only takes a split-second to resume moving in the right direction, but man, does it ever feel like an eternity — especially the first time one experiences it.
We have reached the Third Street portion of West Virginia’s basketball schedule.
The Mountaineers are moving backwards, and right now it feels like the descent won’t stop until the vehicle has rolled all the way down the hill to Beechurst Avenue in a heap.
But this is not Bob Huggins’ first trip up the hill, and after Saturday’s 70-59 loss to No. 1 Baylor he tried to calm the masses into trusting that a fix will be as simple as applying your foot to the gas.
“The sky hasn’t fallen,” Huggins said in his postgame radio interview. “It’s looked like it wanted to a couple times, but the sky hasn’t fallen. I told them, ‘Guys, it ain’t over. But certain things have got to change. We cannot have 20 turnovers and beat good people. Nor can anybody else.'”
Correctly reading the temperature in the room, Huggins made a plea to students and fans to show up in force for Tuesday night’s game against Oklahoma State to help snap the Mountaineers out of their slump.
“Don’t give up on us. Don’t quit on us,” Huggins said. “We’re not going to quit. We need people filling the seats, and emotion.”
Yes, West Virginia has lost three straight games and has looked ugly in the process. But because two of them came against teams ranked in the top 3 nationally, the computers still love the Mountaineers. West Virginia is 10th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. WVU hasn’t budged on KenPom.com, sticking at No. 7 after this week’s two losses.
Somehow — well, specifically because multiple teams also on West Virginia’s tier are also going through funks right now — the Mountaineers remain in line for a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, and may still even play their way back up to the 2-line.
“To say that we’ve fallen out of the national picture is wrong. We have not,” Huggins said. “We are very much still a big part of the national picture. Now, we have to take of our business.”
It is fair to question this team’s ability to take care of business if glaring offensive deficiencies are not corrected.
The Mountaineers are abysmal in three statistical areas that will get them beat early in the NCAA tournament if there are no corrections. West Virginia is 295th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, 311th in three-point shooting, 332nd in free-throw shooting and 334th in opposing steal percentage.
Even in the defense-first world of Huggins, these numbers are troubling.
He’s only had one team worse at shooting threes (2012). In 38 seasons, he’s never had a team shoot free throws as poorly as 64.4 percent. He’s also never had a team that’s turned the ball over at such a high rate, with the current 21.4 percent of possessions slightly outdoing last season’s 21.3 percent mark.
Taz Sherman presented a potential solution to some of those problems with his 20-point second-half outburst at Baylor. Sherman provided West Virginia with more scoring in the game’s final 10 minutes than starting shooting guard Emmitt Matthews has in the past four games combined.
Matthews has been one of the weakest links on the court during the three-game skid, combining for six points and five rebounds in 55 minutes. He’s shooting 14 percent. Huggins either needs to get Matthews engaged early against Oklahoma State, or give Sherman a shot from the opening tip.
And then there is the point guard problem. Huggins has been mixing Brandon Knapper in with Jordan McCabe and Miles McBride the past two games, but the trio has combined for zero assists in those losses.
Perhaps it is time to move Jermaine Haley into the mix.
Haley actually played the point for a good portion of WVU’s first game against Oklahoma State, so Tuesday’s rematch seems as good a time as any to see how he looks.
That move would also provide an opportunity to play McBride more as a shooting guard, perhaps helping the freshman snap out of the decided funk that he’s been in since the Texas Tech game. McBride, who is this team’s best pure scorer, is shooting 34 percent from the field since the loss in Lubbock.
Selection Sunday is a month away, and West Virginia can still make it up the hill. But as Huggins says, certain things have to change. Those changes may need to start with who he has on the floor.