Chuck McGill: WVU tries to get over hump against quality foes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When the opposition has a Smart kid, your team better have enough answers.
West Virginia came oh-so-close to acing its latest test against a nationally ranked opponent, but the Mountaineers' losing skid against the top 25 is at 15 games after Saturday's 73-72 loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State and National Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart.
The one-point loss - WVU's six losses this season have all come by single digits at an average of 4.8 points - is not a failure, however. In fact, rather than being the kid in the back row with unkempt hair who is desperately trying to sneak a peek at a neighbor's test sheet, WVU was well-prepared.
The Mountaineers just didn't fill in the final bubble all the way.
West Virginia (10-6, 2-1 Big 12) will get another chance -- albeit this time against unranked Texas (12-4, 1-2 Big 12) -- for a quality win tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU). Not only are the Mountaineers winless against top 25 teams over the last 736 days, but they've yet to defeat a team ranked in the top 150 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) this season.
The Longhorns are No. 58, and their four losses are all to top 50 RPI clubs: Michigan State (No. 8), Oklahoma State (No. 14), Oklahoma (No. 25) and BYU (No. 43).
Despite the loss the Cowboys, who defeated Texas by 13 points at home, Bob Huggins' Mountaineers gave more reason to believe they're on the cusp of doing something more than beating the meek and succumbing late to the strong.
"I'm tired of it," West Virginia sophomore guard Eron Harris said after Saturday's loss to the Cowboys.
"Hopefully we get over this hump of being so close, that we were right there.
"We're tired of saying it."
Harris is searching for answers, but the Mountaineers had plenty of them through the first 39 minutes and 49 seconds of Saturday's game in front of a season-high 12,078 fans.
In the first half - with WVU leading 24-20 - the rambunctious student section began taunting future NBA lottery pick Smart. Moments later Smart, who at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds looks like he needs to be playing for Mike Gundy, threw down a monstrous dunk and pointed toward the rowdy group in the lower level. After a Devin Williams turnover, LeBryan Nash tied the game at 24-24 and the Coliseum quieted.
Harris answered with a wide-open 3, Terry Henderson drove and scored on a short jumper and Remi Dibo added a 3 from the right corner to make it 32-24. That helped WVU build a 41-39 halftime lead, the first time the Cowboys had trailed at intermission this season. Oklahoma State had been allowing 28.1 points per game in the first half this season.
The Cowboys had a chance to run away early in the second half after Smart hit a 3 in a tie game, but the Mountaineers answered with a 7-point spurt
Later, Oklahoma State went on a 9-1 run to flip a 3-point deficit into a 5-point advantage, yet West Virginia still made a late charge and led in the final minute against a team that will likely re-enter the top 10 when the polls are released today.
"After giving that effort, I'm not frustrated," Harris said. "I know we have good things to come."
Playing toe-to-toe with an Oklahoma State team that could be a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament tends to spark optimism. While WVU has yet to snag a win against a team in the top 150 of the RPI, the Cowboys have seven of them.
Yours truly holds the state's only Associated Press top 25 ballot and, as one can find on a website like Pollspeak.com, Oklahoma State appeared in my top 5 the first nine weeks. If not for the untimely injury to big man Michael Cobbins and brief suspension of guard Jeffrey Clark, perhaps the Cowboys would still be there.
What the Cowboys lack in height they more than make up in athleticism and NBA-ready bodies. Their backcourt should be considered second to none, yet OSU coach Travis Ford said after Saturday's game that WVU's combination of Harris, Henderson and Juwan Staten "are as good as any in the league."
Oklahoma State and West Virginia will tangle again Jan. 25 in Stillwater, Okla. It will likely be the Mountaineers' next shot at a nationally ranked team. Home games against Texas (tonight) and Texas Tech (Jan. 22) sandwich a road trip to Kansas State (Saturday), the only Big 12 team to knock off Oklahoma State this season.
Nine of the final 15 conference games could come against ranked teams.
The Mountaineers don't have any Smarts, but what they've got should be the answer to this run of futility against the nation's best ... or at least a quality opponent.
As Huggins said after Saturday's showdown slipped away:
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.