WVU basketball: Williams, Watkins 'worlds better'
LUBBOCK, Texas -- The West Virginia men's basketball team that just won two games away in three days is much different from the team that only played two games in the two weeks before the TCU-Texas Tech road trip.
WVU Coach Bob Huggins thought his team was defending better before TCU got open for a lot of shots in Saturday's win. He believed WVU was rebounding better before they were outworked by 11 rebounds in Monday's win against the Red Raiders.
Yet the Mountaineers won both games. They first withstood TCU's 7-for-7 start from 3-point range and then clutched a lead through the finish. Then they lost and recaptured their cool and their lead in a frantic finish against Texas Tech.
"I think our recognition, although it still has to get so much better, is getting better," Huggins said. "Our recognition for what to do is better than it was before. You need to get good shots. You need to know how much time is left, what the score is, what the whole situation is. Sometimes guys shoot shots and don't know where they're shooting it from. It's about the circumstances. I think as we get more experienced, we get better and better at that."
WVU was tested in both games and emerged victorious from a line of one-possession situations in both games. The Mountaineers led the final 21:43 against TCU, but never by more than nine points with just a few seconds left to play. They built and then gave away an 11-point lead Monday, but not all at once. The Red Raiders eventually took the lead, but it was with a 37-24 run over 15:49.
WVU (10-5, 2-0 Big 12) didn't play poorly, either, making 9 of 15 shots and 3 of 4 free throws and committing just one turnover in that prolonged Texas Tech rally, one the Mountaineers kept extending with five straight scores in a one-possession game.
Losses to Virginia Tech and Missouri, both on the road, were defined by scoring runs. Losses to the Hokies, Wisconsin, Gonzaga and Purdue had moments where WVU aimed to take the game and missed. If nothing else, WVU made right on those wrongs to stand atop the conference standings, which is very different than things were with a 6-12 mark in Big 12 play a season ago.
"I think any coach in the league would be pretty excited about getting two wins on the road," Huggins said.
Perhaps the biggest difference for WVU, if not now, than certainly as this season progresses, was not in performance, but in appearance. For the first time this season, Huggins used his 6-foot-9 freshmen Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins together extensively, one of those things a team can work on when it plays twice in 15 days. He was rewarded with promising play on offense and defense and with rebounding.
"They're worlds better now," Huggins said. "There were a whole lot of people who didn't think Brandon would ever make it when Brandon first showed up. He's probably made more improvement than anybody on the team. And Devin is getting better. But it's hard for a freshman. You fly across the country to play in Dallas, then you get on a plane and fly (to Lubbock) and you practice and look at more film and you say, 'OK, we're playing again?' You don't do that in high school."
Williams had 12 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes against Texas Tech and is now averaging 12 points and 8.3 rebounds since the week off between the Marshall and Purdue games - and that includes the William & Mary win, when he was limited to 13 minutes by a sore back.
Watkins had five points, eight rebounds (six offensive), two blocked shots and two assists in 20 minutes. It was his best performance and his most playing time in the past four games since his breakthrough 12-point, 11-rebound game against Marshall.
The true value of their efforts came together, though. Huggins paired his best inside players on seven occasions for a combined 15:16. WVU outscored Texas Tech 38-34 in a game it would win by just three points.
"They can do a lot for us, especially on the defensive end because they give us a lot of rebounding," point guard Juwan Staten said. "And Brandon gives us something inside we don't have, which is somebody who changes shots at the rim. He's great in there for us."
Watkins shot 2-for-4 and made 1 of 2 free throws with Williams and added six rebounds (four offensive), two blocked shots and an assist. Williams made 1 of 2 shots and 3 of 5 free throws with Watkins and added three rebounds and an assist.
WVU was outrebounded by nine in the game, but managed an even battle when Williams and Watkins were partnered. Huggins even trusted WVU to guard and to rebound out of a 2-3 zone with Watkins in the middle, Williams to one side and 6-4 Terry Henderson to the other.
"As long as they continue to play and to compete, they can be great for us," Staten sad. "They're just freshmen, but they're already helping us so much."
They're a compelling complement to one another, too. Watkins lightens some defensive duties for Williams with his rebounding and shot-altering. Williams can handle more offensive duties because Watkins is not yet as refined on that end or around the basket.
Williams is a more solid presence because he's 255 pounds, 20 pounds bigger than Watkins, and that helps establish position rebounds and catches in the post. Williams can play through contact and finish plays down low, something he proved in a big spot with WVU trailing by a basket late in regulation. He was grabbed in transition, but brushed off Jaye Crockett's foul and made a layup.
He missed the free throw, but Watkins grabbed the rebound and scored, the sort of thing that can happen when they're together and because Watkins is more explosive with his long arms and leaping ability. On a key possession with 35 seconds to go in regulation and WVU trailing by two points, he was set up for a lob pass on an inbounds play under his basket. He missed, but the point was made.
"He's got some athleticism to him," Williams said, "and he's got some really long arms."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu