Taylor: Motivation, moxie lifts Mountaineers past projections

West Virginia’s Jaysean Paige scored 14 points during Saturday’s 69-58 win at Baylor in the regular-season finale.



Jaysean Paige, the happiest guy in Waco this side of those Fixer Uppers, bounded through the Ferrell Center hallway chanting “One mission, man. One mission.”

He didn’t stop when he passed Daxter Miles being interviewed, Rather, he leaned in with an encouraging interruption for his teammate: “We can make a run if you keep hitting those shots.”

Miles made all four of his second-half shots Saturday when West Virginia seized the label “Next-Best to Kansas” in the Big 12, a league that by most presumptions (and RPI math) is the country’s pace-setter. Qualifying seven of your 10 teams for the NCAAs will attract raves. When all seven of them reside in the RPI top 27, as was the case after Saturday’s action, your conference is certifiably stacked.

Now that the regular season’s 18-game round-robin fight club has concluded, expect more premium hoops next week in Kansas City when all those teams go five-on-five again under one neutral roof. Of all the conference tournaments I’ve covered, it’s the best-orchestrated, electric and fan-friendly.

It just hasn’t been WVU-friendly the past three years.

“Looking forward to winning a game or three at the conference tournament,” Bob Huggins said before leaving Waco. “Staying a little longer than we’ve been staying.”

Two years have passed since Huggins came face to face with his own fixer upper. West Virginia had slumped out of relevance in 2013 and made a sorry NIT cameo in 2014. Over those two seasons, the record against top-100 RPI opponents was 6-30.

Huggins demanded change and the retooling came in the form of nine transfers in 13 months. Some were pushed; some shoved off on their own. Neither scenario signaled stability.

Cue the drastic makeover to “Press Virginia,” whereby Huggins committed not to the prettiest players but typically the hungriest.

“We’ve got guys who came in and really wanted to play,” he said. “They’re a lot more appreciative of the opportunities they have at a place like West Virginia.

“I wish they’d make more shots. I wish we could pass it better in transition. I wish a lot of things, but their will to win is pretty good.”

Huggs wishes Miles hadn’t charged straight into Jake Lindsey to muck up a first-half three-on-one. Or whistled a one-handed backcourt pass out of bounds with West Virginia up 12 and needing to milk the final 1:20.

Huggs wishes Jevon Carter could shake the 3-point shooting yips that have him in an 8-for-53 megaslump since Jan. 16.

Huggs wishes a lot of things but has seen enough positives from Miles and Carter to keep them enlisted for crucial moments. Carter played a team-high 33 minutes Saturday, produced his best assist-to-turnover ratio yet (eight to none) and harassed Lester Medford into only his third negative ratio in 31 games this season.

Miles proved receptive to modifying his shooting mechanics midseason and has made 43 percent of his 3s since the flaw was identified. Spotting it was just a step; only through Miles putting up enough practice shots could the benefit take effect.

With his second March Madness about to unfold, Miles poked fun at the folly of his first one. Tweeting on Saturday’s return flight, he promised: “No predictions.”

Predictions don’t amount to much anyway. Just look at the Big 12 coaches who predicted in October that Huggins had the sixth-best team in the conference.

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