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Vexing Mountaineers fall flat in game they badly needed

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Baylor’s best defender blocked seven shots. West Virginia’s best shot-blocker played 40 seconds.

That was among an assortment of factors behind how visiting Baylor owned the paint and trampled West Virginia 88-75 on Saturday in a game both desperately needed to capture.

BOXSCORE: Baylor 88, West Virginia 75

A short-handed Mountaineers team became even shorter-handed when Bob Huggins inserted Brandon Watkins at the 9:59 mark of the first half and promptly yanked him out at the 9:11 mark, never to return. Now, the 6-foot-9 Watkins (with a modest 23 blocks this season) scarcely compares to Baylor’s 7-footer Isaiah Austin (who has 86); yet Watkins is the only West Virginia player with even a semblance of rim-protecting presence.

So throughout the rest of the afternoon, when Austin backed down and spun around the helpless Remi Dibo—or some other Baylor player laid in one of the 14 subsequent up-close baskets (yes, we counted)—you gleaned that Huggins must have pretty doggone peeved to keep Watkins benched.

Peeved, indeed.

“I am not going to continually tell guys for four days of practice what the (opposing) guy’s going to do, and then have them trot they’re happy you-know-whats out there and let him do it,” said Huggins. “I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of it.”

With Watkins’ you-know-what in the game, West Virginia stood a far better chance of beating Baylor in front of the Coliseum’s second-largest crowd this season (11,843). But that notion only held if Watkins could follow the scouting report, and Huggins clearly didn’t see enough follow-through during the freshman’s brief cameo.

With each game’s impact heightened by the quest to accumulate NCAA cache, Huggins could have cut the freshman a break and left him on the floor—especially with WVU dressing only seven other scholarship players. But stubbornness has been a generally positive Huggins trademark through 738 wins, something the coach was happy to recount during the postgame Q&A session. (Cue the yesteryear Cincy stories of Corie Blount being benched at Arizona and Terry Nelson sitting for three games after deeming film study pointless.)

Huggins seemingly greets each current dilemma with parables of past players overcoming theirs, and Watkins—by all accounts a gracious kid—would do well to grasp the long-term lesson his coach now seeks to impart. So too should some of Watkins’ teammates, several of whom were in the purview of Huggins’ fiery gaze as Saturday’s loss unfolded. The unit that took the floor certainly didn’t play as though it had devoted the week to preparing for Baylor.

“We had a week,” Huggins groused. “They’ve all got iPads with all the breakdowns, breakdowns of the people they’re going to guard. I’m not sure what they did—maybe played ‘Spider’ on the iPad, I don’t know—but they sure as hell didn’t watch the tape.”

Like many successful coaches, Huggins detests losing far more than he enjoys winning, and his current team carries too many losses (and wields too much inconsistency) to warrant serious NCAA consideration at this juncture. Deemed an overachieving bunch some days and chastised for lacking commitment on others, these Mountaineers aren’t talented or seasoned enough to survive performances like the one Baylor exploited. (And for a change, Scott Drew enjoyed a reprieve of someone else’s team being the more exasperating.)

Austin and Cory Jefferson combined for 34 points on 27 shots, a hefty spike from the paltry eight points on 12 shots they contributed when Baylor lost the first meeting on Jan. 28. The Bears, floundering then, have regained their moxie and left Morgantown with an RPI of 38. That’s a number too good for the selection panel to ignore.

And you would assume the same can be said about the info on those West Virginia iPads.

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