On a mid-October afternoon in Manhattan, Kan., Will Sprawling sized up the freshly released Big 12 preseason poll, which had Kansas State picked fifth and West Virginia situated a notch behind at sixth.
“I think the Big 12 is anyone’s league,” said the junior guard with a shooter’s touch and Opie’s face. “We could be No. 1, or if we don’t play like we should, we could wind up in the bottom half.”
Three months later, K-State has toed Spradling’s fine-line prediction to a T. At their most modest, the Wildcats struggled to put down Delaware, George Washington and Missouri-Kansas City (scuttling teams with a combined record of 20-29). At their proudest, the ‘Cats knocked off Florida and Oklahoma State (teams stocked with Sweet 16 talent).
Saturday’s 65-64 win at the WVU Coliseum — predicated on a KSU role player who rarely shoots free throws making two of them under “loud as hell” conditions in the final 21.4 seconds — re-emphasized how narrow the margin is between the dreaded and the dregs. K-State stands 2-0 in the Big 12 and could easily be 0-2. West Virginia flounders at 1-2 and could reasonably be 3-0. Or 0-3.
A game that featured seven ties and 11 lead changes presented the Mountaineers with ample opportunity to finally beat a quality opponent. Yet, at crucial junctures the Mountaineers beat only themselves, their grittiness undone by a lack of poise and smarts down the stretch.
• See WVU forward Dominique Rutledge knocking down Shane Southwell with K-State in the double-bonus, leading to the decisive free throws.
• See center Aaric Murray setting a phantom screen for Jabarie Hinds on WVU’s final possession, allowing K-State’s Angel Rodriguez to stay on Hinds’ hip and tip away the inbounds pass.
• See the Mountaineers making only 12-of-22 foul shots in their home gym, where they had made 73 percent previously.
“Games like that hurt more than anything else, because we had it and let it slip through our fingers,” said West Virginia forward Kevin Noreen, speaking with a tone of deflation that undercut even last week’s home loss to Oklahoma.
“I know we’re getting better, but to drop one like that hurts. Absolutely, that was our win.”
Say this for the Mountaineers of Big 12 play versus their nonconference selves: They’ve at least improved from what-the-hell? to what-if? For example, what if West Virginia’s starting point guard had played against K-State?
Juwan Staten’s biggest contribution Saturday was smacking Hinds on the rear end as WVU broke the huddle on its final-play timeout. Encouragement is nice, but production is better, and Staten’s benching resulted in the Mountaineers losing his 10 points per game, along with a team-high 41 assists and 19 steals.
Some fans will blame Bob Huggins for being overly stubborn with his sophomore guard, but Huggins has earned the benefit of the doubt with regard to disciplining his team. Whether it was leaving Murray at home for the Michigan game or saddling Staten with a DNP, the coach hates losing too much to sacrifice wins merely for the sake of being bullheaded. There’s a long-term angle to his handling of Staten, or at least a punishment warranted by Staten’s off-the-court actions.
Huggins offered no indication of when fans can expect to see Staten back on the floor. In fact, the coach’s only update — “He has to get on the same page as me or he is not going to play anymore.” — indicates Staten still has amends to make in order to play at Iowa State or Purdue next week. That two-game road swing is only rendered more crucial after WVU faltered at home for the second straight game.
“We played hard,” Huggins said in eulogizing the one-point loss to K-State. “I thought we had every chance to win it.”
But chances seen aren’t necessarily chances seized, and therein lies the difference in K-State competing for the Big 12 title and WVU being relegated to the league’s lower half.