WVU has come a long way since exhibition loss to D2 team
MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia's men's basketball team has come a long way from the group that lost a November exhibition game to Division II Northern Kentucky University
"It's the same team, but it's just maturing," said senior forward Kevin Jones, who had his 13th double-double of the season in the Mountaineers' 77-74 overtime win against Cincinnati on Saturday. "The talent was always there, but I think the younger guys didn't know how much of a challenge college basketball was going to be. They got a reality check from a Division II team."
WVU still is a team with six true freshmen and a junior college transfer. Two freshmen still start and two others play crucial roles and none of that accounts for the redshirt freshman that's taken a spot in the regular rotation.
Yet the Mountaineers are different.
Jones and Deniz Kilicli have battled balky ankles. Freshman Pat Forsythe was lost for the season just when he was beginning to come into his own. Another freshman, Tommie McCune, doesn't play while the junior college transfer, Dominique Rutledge, had come along in the past few weeks before sitting out Saturday.
WVU (15-5, 5-2 Big East) is good enough to have won four out of five and sit a half-game out of second place. The Mountaineers have a chance to be in first a week from today after playing at St. John's (8-11, 2-6) Wednesday and at first-place Syracuse (20-1, 7-1) Saturday.
The Mountaineers are No. 11 in the RPI and No. 2 in strength of schedule, but also the team that built and lost a 10-point lead on the road against Connecticut and did the same with a nine-point lead in the first half against the Bearcats (15-5, 5-2).
"We're getting better every time they go out on the floor," Coach Bob Huggins said. "We just have those lapses. We play pretty good for a while and then we have those lapses when they don't do what they are supposed to do."
Saturday's win was complicated by guard Truck Bryant's 2-for-16 shooting. He was 0-for-8 from 3-point range, matching Jonathan Hargett and Seldon Jefferson for the most attempts without a make in school history.
Even without Bryant near his 18.1 points per game, WVU managed right around its scoring average in regulation.
"That's big for us," Jones said. "We're not relying on certain people to win. When we get like that, I think we can be a real dangerous team."
Freshman guards Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne bailed out Bryant. Hinds had 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. He played 40 minutes. It's his third consecutive game in double figures after managing two in 10 games from Dec. 8-Jan. 9.
Browne matched a career high with 13 points and added nine rebounds and two steals. He also hit a 3 with 11.3 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. He was 7-for-27 up to that point this season.
The Mountaineers are 3-1 in overtime games with the loss coming to Baylor, which was No. 3 and undefeated before losing two games to top-10 teams last week.
"I look back and I could see us beating good teams," Browne said. "UConn, we were supposed to win that game. Baylor, we were supposed to win that game. We've got a mindset like that now and that means a lot when every time you play you think you're supposed to win the game."
WVU will have many opportunities to prove it. Eleven games remain and five are against the bottom four teams in the conference. Six of the 11 are on the road and three are against the bottom four.
The Mountaineers have a home-and-home with Pitt, which is 0-7 in the Big East, and Notre Dame, which just gave the Orange their first loss of the season. WVU's only ranked opponent after Syracuse is Marquette, but that's at the Coliseum, where the Mountaineers are 31-9 in Big East games under Huggins.
"We have a mindset that we can win every game," Browne said. "We didn't have that confidence in the beginning of the year. We didn't trust everybody and that's why we lost some games. Now we trust everybody. We know what we can do."
Most important, WVU knows what Jones can do and he's playing likely the best basketball of his career right now. He has scored at least 20 points in five straight games, the best at WVU since Da'Sean Butler did it in six in a row in 2009. He's averaging 23.9 points and 13.8 points in the five games with three doubles-doubles.
Jones made 11 of 15 shots Saturday and was 2-for-2 from 3-point range. He's 45-for-76 from the floor and 10-for-18 from 3-point range in this run. He was 13-for-57 from 3-point range the first 15 games of the season.
"Kevin hits shots," Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said. "That's why he's the player of the year in the Big East. When a guy is a great player, you've got to give him credit. There were times we were right on him and he just made it. I've got nothing but respect for him."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.