MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s retooled roster sprouted faster than expected this season, and the most recent three games revealed a microcosm of that evolution.
With Juwan Staten and Gary Browne idled for the homestretch, the Mountaineers displayed a rapid and stunning progression—from being clobbered at Baylor to darn-near heroic at Kansas to convincingly adroit against Oklahoma State. The whole eight-day development proved that even under the doomsday scenario of its senior guards remaining too hobbled to suit up again, WVU might not be entirely doomed.
The best Bob Huggins could say about Browne’s possible return for the Big 12 tournament? “It’s conceivable.” As for Staten’s circumstance, he only dropped another in a series of I-don’t-knows.
But if you think Huggins is for one nano-second wading into self-pity about what might’ve been, then rewind to Allen Fieldhouse, where a combo of missed free throws and phantom calls essentially cost the Mountaineers a share of the Big 12 title. West Virginia, while clearly diminished without Staten running the show and Browne running around like a mad man, still possesses enough vigor and skill to do damage in the survive-and-advance realm.
Under the sudden weight of these late-season role changes, the holdovers haven’t turned to carping but rather carpe diem.
“It was an opportunity for us to step up,” said freshman Daxter Miles. “We felt like we needed to show the older guys that we can play, that we’re tough, too.”
Heading into the perceived Kansas slaughter, Miles was a 31-percent shooter from 3 and averaged 6.3 points. Yet against the Jayhawks and OSU he sank 8-of-15 from 3-point range and averaged 19 points. How’s that for embracing new responsibility?
Huggins beamed over the effort he witnessed recently. Devin Williams tearing up the Cowboys inside. Tarik Phillip playing like the point guard he was recruited to be. Nate Adrian preventing Le’Bryan Nash from making shots while making a few of his own.
All this resilience, even though the players still dressing out aren’t the healthiest bunch themselves. Between Brandon Watkins’ knee, Williams’ wounded shooting thumb and Adrian’s undisclosed injury, Huggins said his guys “have some business for the hospital at the end of the year.”
They just don’t want the end to arrive anytime soon.
“They’re playing hurt and they’re going to have to get some things fixed (surgically), but they want to play,” he said. “They don’t want to let anybody down. I’m proud of them.”
Tournament draw: After earning the league’s No. 5 seed, the Mountaineers will face fourth-seed Baylor in Thursday’s Big 12 quarterfinals at 12:30 p.m. The Bears dominated the regular-season meetings 87-69 in Morgantown and 78-66 in Waco.
Despite having an NCAA at-large bid assured, Huggins is hungry for West Virginia to produce a better showing at the conference tournament, where it is 0-2 in its new league.
“Hopefully we go to Kansas City and make a run,” he said. “I don’t buy that deal about you lose early in the conference tournament you get more rest for the NCAA tournament.”