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WVU basketball: Mountaineers are better, but how much?

WACO, Texas -- Whether West Virginia is any good is yet unknown, even this late in this inaugural season in the Big 12 conference.

It's also not yet a concern for Bob Huggins, not while in possession of a three-game winning streak against the conference's worst teams. And not with a pitiless conclusion waiting that begins tonight with the 9 p.m. ESPN2 game against Baylor at the Ferrell Center.

"I think we're better," Huggins said of what's happened the past two weeks.

It's hard to dispute that, much the same as it's hard to say the Mountaineers (12-11, 5-5 Big 12) are yet ready to prove deserving of an at-large bid to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament.

WVU, Kansas and Kansas State are the only Big 12 teams with a winning road record in conference play. The Jayhawks and Wildcats are both 4-2 in opposing Big 12 gyms and are tied for first place in the conference.

The Mountaineers are 3-2 and tied for seventh, thanks solely to wins against Texas, TCU and Texas Tech, who together are 21 games below .500 in Big 12 play and have as many conference wins as WVU.

WVU is 1-9 against the RPI top 100 -- and the win came when Eastern Kentucky was outside the top 100. Seven of the final eight games are against teams in the RPI's top 55, beginning with the Bears (14-8, 6-4). They're No. 54 in the RPI and WVU gets to play them twice.

The three consecutive wins against Texas Tech, Texas and TCU, and even a somewhat encouraging performance in a loss to Kansas before that, have witnessed a different, improved WVU, especially on offense.

"They've got a couple guys now making more shots and playing a little more than they did earlier in the year," Baylor Coach Scott Drew said. "Add that offense to a good defense and good rebounding team and that's what gets you wins.

"Coach Huggins is always gong to have his guys ready and in position to win. Normally, that comes down to making shots."

That was WVU's fatal flaw earlier in the season. As recently as Jan. 27, the day before the loss to Kansas, the Mountaineers ranked 314th out of 345 teams in field-goal percentage (39.5) and 272nd in 3-point field-goal percentage (29.2) - and that was even an improvement upon previous numbers.

WVU is now at No. 291 in overall shooting percentage (40.1) and No. 268 in 3-point percentage (31.5). The Mountaineers shot a season-high 56.5 percent against Texas Tech, 46.2 against Texas (sixth-highest this season) and 51.2 percent against TCU.

They've also averaged seven 3-pointers per game in the past three games. WVU made seven 3s only five times in its first 20 games. Wins against Texas Tech (10-for-18) and TCU (7-for-10) saw the best two 3-point percentages of the season.

"We didn't do that earlier in the year," Huggins said.

"I think that's the result of shot selection and I think creating more live-ball turnovers."

WVU has 35 steals the past four games and has been more potent in transition as a result. Yet the Mountaineers have been more patient, too, when they get into half-court sets.

They've passed up acceptable shots early in possessions to get better shots or to find players in preferred spots.

"We're running offense, making five passes, trying to get the basketball in the hoop," said guard Jabarie Hinds. "We don't want to rush anything. That leads to turnovers and bad misses and fast-break points for them."

WVU's most notable improvement in passing has been its ability to get the ball into the post, where Deniz Kilicli has been increasingly effective. The Mountaineers struggled with it not so long ago, and that led to stalled possessions and forced drives or jumpers late in the shot clock.

Kilicli could be guilty of passivity and defenses adjusted by shifting attention elsewhere. WVU has engaged Kilicli more and more, and usually at the start of the game, to set a standard.

"He's so much more active," Huggins said. "When Deniz is active, he draws people to him and opens things for other people. Look at his stat line (Saturday): Eight points and he goes 4-for-8. What that doesn't tell you is how many times he draws people to him because everyone is so concerned about him scoring close."

None of this has happened against the teams above the Mountaineers, who have a 0-6 record against teams higher in the conference standings with seven games to go against the same teams. WVU plays the Bears twice and plays at Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma, which is 2-0 against the Mountaineers.

At home, WVU plays host to lowly Texas Tech. But they also host the league's hottest team in Oklahoma State and an Iowa State team that can match, and thus test, WVU's offensive capabilities.

The question then is not if WVU is better, but can WVU sustain this against better competition?

"We know it's only going to get harder, but we know we've got to stay together and keep working as a team, because that's what's worked," Hinds said. "Every game now is a big game for us and we need every one of them, but we finally came together as a team.

"We're sharing the ball and talking. I think our defense has gotten better and we're more aggressive, all because we started to trust each other."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.

 


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