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WVU basketball: Rough stretch looms for Mountaineers

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Bob Huggins didn't take long to summarize why his West Virginia basketball team's fortunes changed so rapdily with a trip to Kansas State.

"The competition," said Huggins, whose team absorbed a 71-61 loss to the 10th-ranked Wildcats on Monday night.

The Mountaineers had won three consecutive games before losing by 20 points at Baylor last Wednesday, narrowly avoiding a ruinous loss to Texas Tech last Saturday and then trailing from start to finish, and at one time by 22 points to K-State.

Huggins coached the Wildcats to a 23-12 record and a NIT bid in the 2006-07 season he spent here.

In addition to 10 consecutive losses to ranked teams and a 1-10 record against the top 100 teams in the RPI - with the win coming against an Eastern Kentucky team that was No. 137 the day it lost in the Coliseum - the Mountaineers are 0-7 in Big 12 play against teams above them in the standings and 6-0 against the three teams below them.

WVU is 13-13 overall and needs four wins in the final five regular season games and the Big 12 Tournament just to guarantee a record above .500. The NIT doesn't specify that teams need to be above .500 to be selected, but since the NCAA bought the NIT in the summer of 2005, 223 of the 224 teams have been at least two games above .500. Only the 2008 Cal team (16-15) was one game above .500.

The trouble is the remaining five games are against teams in the Big 12's top six and each has beaten WVU this season - and Oklahoma beat the Mountaineers in an early-season tournament before winning in Morgantown last month.  

"We're due," Huggins said before saying that, who knows, the Mountaineers might get hot and win the Big 12 Tournament and pick up the automatic bid to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament.

And that was only interesting because it bypassed these final five games that figure to be tough on the Mountaineers, who played against the Wildcats as they did in other losses to the top Big 12 teams.

WVU panicked on offense and made regrettable decisions on the way to 17-for-42 shooting. The Mountaineers couldn't follow directions on defense to keep drives out of the paint, stop shooters from getting wide open shots or ignore temptations to leave one to help with another.

WVU outrebounded Kansas State 28-27 with 13 coming on offense, but that was negated by 12 offensive rebounds for a KSU team that would shoot 50 percent in both halves.

"We don't rebound that ball," Huggins said. "That's very uncharacteristic of my teams over the years. Then again, we don't guard either and that's very uncharacteristic of my teams throughout the years. We miss shots. Everyone misses shots. You've got to find a way to win. We just don't do that."

The Mountaineers did themselves in by starting off with a deficit and then battling the scoreboard and all their deficiencies the rest of the way. They needed 13 minutes to score 10 points thanks to seven turnovers and just nine shots. By then, they were down 14 points.

Just about everything went KSU's way in front of a crowd that's helped the Wildcats to a 14-1 home record this season. They made 3-pointers and short jumpers and tricky layups that spun high off the glass and through the basket even while being fouled.

"We were running around and somebody would jump on the ball and the ball would get away and then somebody else would jump on the ball and they'd get the ball," WVU's Deniz Kilicli said. "That happens so much to us, plays where four of us jump to get a ball and the ball gets out to somebody else and they dunk it."

Kilicli had established himself as WVU's difference-maker on offense during WVU's brief revival and looked to be up to the same early Monday, but went to the bench with two fouls after 7:15. The Mountaineers were down 16-4 when he went to the bench, would trail by 19 points in the half and were down by 15 at halftime.

Kilicli played all 20 minutes in the second half and had 14 of his team-high 16 points.  

"I could have helped the team in the first half," he said. "The way I played in the second half, if I played that way in the first half I think it could have been a closer game."

WVU actually got closer in the second half before showing cracks. Huggins got a technical foul at the 16:25 mark and two free throws put the Mountaineers down 21 points. WVU scored seven unanswered to get within 14 points and the margin was that way again four minutes later.

Yet that was when freshman Eron Harris, who lasted five minutes in the first half before getting two fouls and then just 72 seconds of the second half before his third foul, picked up a personal foul and a technical foul for knocking KSU's Will Spradling to the floor.

Harris, WVU's best scorer over the past month, had fouled out. Spradling made the four free throws and a subsequent three-point play gave the Wildcats a 21-point lead.

"Spradling, that's how he plays," Kilicli said. "He flops most of the time. He gets under bigs. He does a good job. I'm not saying this in a negative way. He makes those plays and Eron is a freshman."

WVU never made another run after that until it was down 20 points with 3:25 to go and scored the game's final 10 points.

"You know how I am," Kilicli said. "I know most of the time how the team feels and what everyone feels. But I don't know now. It's hard to explain and I don't know what guys were thinking (Monday)."

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


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