WVU basketball: Players say team would be better if opponents were better
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Here's an unusual problem for West Virginia: There's only one Kansas on the schedule.
For many teams, that would be a relief and not a dilemma. For the Mountaineers, it means there is but one team and two games to draw the best out of them.
"Against teams that weren't as good as this team - we only lost by five points to the No. 2 team in the country - if we would have played this way against those other teams, we would have won more games," WVU center Aaric Murray said.
WVU played above its reputation Monday night, but not quite up to the one belonging to the team ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll and No. 2 in the media poll in a 61-56 loss. It was the sort of effort that allowed the Mountaineers to outscore the Jayhawks by 10 points over the final 30 minutes, but one the team hasn't been able to consistently display.
And maybe the Jayhawks saw that coming.
"Before the game, they were out there shooting half-court shots, playing around, not taking it serious," Murray said. "It felt like they were taking us for granted. We wanted to come out and upset them."
Afterward, WVU realized had it approached other games like they did the first Big Monday feature in the Big 12, it might not be 9-11 overall and 2-5 in the conference with an 0-5 mark in games decided by five or fewer points.
"We're not a great team," guard Gary Brown said. "We don't have that one guy to count on. We have to play hard and compete to win and we don't compete."
The Jayhawks seem on their way to at least a share of a ninth straight regular-season conference title, something that hasn't happened in one of the major conferences since UCLA won 13 Pac 8/Pac 10 titles in a row from 1967-79.
The Mountaineers are in a tie for seventh place in the conference with Texas Tech. They play the Red Raiders at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. It's the first of three straight games and four out of five against teams in the bottom four of the league. WVU follows the game against the Red Raiders with a Feb. 4 home game against Texas (ninth place, 1-5) in the back end of another trying Saturday-Monday sequence.
The Mountaineers then play Feb. 9 at TCU (10th place, 0-7) and Feb. 13 at Baylor (second place, 5-1) before concluding a possible season-shaping stretch at home against Texas Tech.
"When they picked us sixth in Big 12 in the preseason, I thought there was no way we'd finish that low," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "I thought our seniors would step up because our seniors have always stepped up. You think your freshmen are going to get better and the three transfers are going to add to your program. The reality is none of that has happened."
There were brief moments against Kansas that illustrated his vision. Dominique Rutledge, one of WVU's three seniors, but one who also didn't play in Saturday's loss at Oklahoma State, started against the Jayhawks and had surges. On one possession, he had two offensive rebounds and the third shot was a 3-pointer from Murray to bring the Mountaineers within a basket.
Murray is one of WVU's three transfers and he and Juwan Staten played important parts in nearly erasing a 15-point deficit in the first half. Murray had 17 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals and made three 3-pointers. Staten worked hard to keep his team's erratic offense in motion and took shots when needed on the way to 14 points.
"For me, it gives me something to say to the freshmen, something like, 'You guys played well against the No. 2 team in the country. Who do we have left that's better than Kansas?'" Murray said. "We can use that as motivation to know how good we are and where we stand."
Actually, WVU's freshmen didn't play well. Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, the team's top perimeter threats, combined to shoot 0-for-7 from the floor and 0-for-5 from 3-point range. Henderson was scoreless and Harris, who had averaged 15.8 points and made 11 of 22 3-point attempts the previous four games, made two free throws.
Without the freshmen and with the team's guards shooting 0-for-8 from 3-point range, WVU still managed to stick around against the NCAA's leader in field-goal percentage defense. WVU had two possessions to tie the score or take the lead, but came away empty both times.
Staten's first 3-pointer of the season made it a one-point game, but the officials reviewed the shot and ruled it a 2-pointer. Kansas then scored seven unanswered points as WVU's offense slowed, misfired and only got close late when the Jayhawks missed 4 of 8 free throws.
The Mountaineers dribbled away time during possessions, didn't set screens, wouldn't pass the ball where it needed to go and couldn't grab any offensive rebounds.
"A lot of time things break down because people don't know what they're supposed to do," Huggins said. "Should they? Yes. Do they? I don't know. We've got guys who have done it for more than a year now. It's my fault. It's my fault that I think, maybe, they'll change."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.