WVU basketball: Losses have become familiar to team
MANHATTAN, Kan. - The question came from a familiar face, one West Virginia coach Bob Huggins came to know seven seasons ago when he spent one season at Kansas State as the head coach.
So impressive were the Wildcats in a 78-56 victory Saturday against WVU that Huggins was asked if he felt a little responsible for the way the program had sustained itself since he led the Wildcats to 10 Big 12 wins for the first time ever, 23 wins overall and a NIT bid to end an eight-year postseason drought.
"I've got enough problems of my own," Huggins said.
For starters, WVU has lost three in a row following a 2-0 start in Big 12 play and is just 5-6 after playing then-No. 10 ranked Wisconsin in the championship game of the Cancun Classic.
But if Huggins and the Mountaineers are being honest, losses don't shock them because this team is now just 10-8 after going 13-19 a season ago.
What stung after the biggest loss of the season before a sellout crowd of 12,528 at Bramlage Coliseum, the largest crowd to see WVU play this season, was that the Mountaineers believe they lost the game as well as their once surging sense of certainty.
"I see it," said guard Eron Harris, who had struggled with his shot before rediscovering some success by scoring 21 points and making four of eight 3-point attempts against Kansas State. "That's the key. If you don't think you can do it, you're not going to do it."
WVU's first six losses of the season were by double digits. The Mountaineers showed promise by rallying from deficits and making things close and exciting late. They trailed Virginia Tech by 10 in the second half - after leading by 17 in the first half - and lost by five. They trailed the Badgers by 18 but had the ball down four late. They were losing by 25 at Missouri, but cut it to eight in the final minute.
In the seven games after the loss to the Tigers in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, WVU never trailed by more than eight points. In last Monday's loss to Texas, the Mountaineers trailed by double digits for the final 22:11 on Monday. They trailed the Wildcats by at least 11 points for the final 23:21 on Saturday.
Up next is Texas Tech, one of the three teams WVU has beaten in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers play host to the Red Raiders at 8 p.m. Wednesday after winning in overtime in Lubbock, Texas, earlier this month. Texas Tech, like WVU at 10-8 overall and 2-3 in the conference, has won two in a row.
"We've got to battle our confidence," Harris said.
Kansas State not only built a lead and kept WVU back, but held the Mountaineers to their lowest point total and shooting percentage (32.7) and matched the season-high 25-point deficit from last month at Missouri. WVU also shot 4-for-15 from 3-point range after shooting 4-for-25 from deep and just 37.7 percent against Texas.
"It seems like last year is continuing right now to this point in our lives," Harris said. "It's very frustrating personally. I'm just in a state where I don't know what to do."
Especially troubling for WVU was its defense in the absence of its offense. Kansas State came into the game with the Big 12's worst field-goal and 3-point shooting percentages and the second-lowest scoring average. The Wildcats shot 54.9 percent, a season-high for themselves and the largest number WVU has allowed this season.
"Everyone goes through periods where they don't shoot the ball well and we're not shooting the ball well, but as a team, I think we need to approach the game more seriously," point guard Juwan Staten said. "I think we need to really take care of business off the court throughout the whole week. If you take care of business throughout the whole week, you can't help but be successful on game day.
"I think we're leaving stones unturned and I don't think we do everything we need to do to make sure we're ready when the game comes. Once the game comes, it's too late to get ready. We need a better mindset in practice and to work on individual skills and bring more passion to the game."
WVU did outrebound Kansas State 33-32 and had 15 offensive rebounds, but the energy that used to propel WVU was missing elsewhere. Huggins wondered why his players were a step slow or a foot away from getting more loose balls.
"It seems we get our hands on as many balls as anybody else, but we don't ever come up with the balls," he said. "We just don't come up with them. I don't understand it."
The Mountaineers gave up 28 points in the paint to the 14 they scored and allowed assists on 22 of 28 baskets. WVU had just five assists to 15 turnovers. Staten, whose seven turnovers were the most he's had since transferring to WVU, accused his teammates of not cutting hard or fast enough to be threats to score. Over time, player movement and ball movement slowed or stopped against a defense that's best broken by both.
"We don't pass the ball," Huggins said. "We got in trouble when the game got turned around and we came down and made a pass or two and shot it. You can't do that against people who are as help-oriented (defensively) as they are."
Ultimately, it was an error like that which bothered WVU the most. There are certain things a team has to do to be successful against Kansas State and there are specific ways the Mountaineers like to play to be successful. Both were rehearsed during practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and none of it really mattered Saturday.
"We let them dictate everything," Staten said. "I felt like they came out and forced us to play the way they wanted to play better than how we on our end imposed our will on them.
"You've got to be mentally tough. Kansas State is one of the hardest-playing teams, if not the hardest-playing team, in the conference. They predicate everything they do on defense and take pride in disrupting the other team's offense. You've got to be a strong-minded team to sit there and take the pressure and execute your plays, but I just don't think we're there yet."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.