After West Virginia’s 89-87 overtime home loss to the Oklahoma Sooners, fans were left scratching their heads as they left the arena. How could their seventh ranked Mountaineers lose to a 7-9 team on the Coliseum floor? With around seven minutes to go in regulation, WVU was in the midst of a 14-0 run that extended a 1-point lead to 15 at 66-51. Game, set, match, correct? Wrong.
There were many issues during the Sooner debacle such as free throw shooting (a season long issue, even in the wins), defense and defensive rebounding, but the main issue with this team right now is: They are not as elite as they think they are.
Don’t get me wrong, the Mountaineers are a very good basketball team when they want to be. But, how often are they wanting to be? It starts with six letters: E.F.F.O.R.T. And it’s effort against ALL teams, not just the ones that have a ranking by their name.
The state of West Virginia and the people who occupy it pride themselves on hard work, toughness and being able to overcome adversity against the most almost unattainable odds. Coach Bob Huggins’ team has exemplified all these things for most of the season and that is a huge reason why Mountaineer fans love this team so much. The squad only has three losses this season through 18 games. However, that three number should be zero. West Virginia should be the number one ranked team in the nation right now, but they have to learn to handle success and be the hunted.
In the first loss of the year against Temple, WVU got down by 20 points in the first half. Now a big part of that was the Owls inexplicable shooting in what seemed like an 80 percent half, but the defensive effort was also a big question mark. West Virginia gave great effort early in the second half to battle back and even take a lead late in the game only to squander it away with poor free throw shooting down the stretch.
A couple games later, the Mountaineers traveled to Charlottesville to take on one of the most disciplined teams in basketball, the Virginia Cavaliers. WVU creeped out to a small lead in the second half, played with great energy and great effort, executed beautifully in the half court and left UVA with an impressive 66-57 win.
Fast forward to the Big 12 opener at Oklahoma State, a game that looked on paper to be a very difficult road test. But West Virginia again played with great energy and flawless execution en route to a 92-75 victory. The Mountaineers shot up to the top 10 after that win to number seven and apparently that was enough to just show up and win in Lubbock. Well, it wasn’t. Texas Tech took advantage of a tired team (a lot of that can be due to the fact that they had traveled a lot of miles in three days time) that for the most part of the game to the naked eye looked disinterested in playing. Still, it took a buzzer beating 3-pointer to win it for the Red Raiders in overtime.
The win against Baylor had all the national pundits talking. “West Virginia is a can’t miss final four team.” “The Mountaineers are a national title favorite.” They forced the Bears into 29 turnovers and won by 21 points in a game that wasn’t that close. Everyone played hard and fired up and looked how they were supposed to look–tough, gritty and skilled.
The team survived a sloppy game at Texas where a few players were sick, but the others still didn’t seem to be right. Esa Ahmad (rumored to be one of the sick) was a turnover machine, Daxter Miles missed all six of his 3-point attempts and although Texas had 19 turnovers, it didn’t feel like the “Press Virginia” defense was as good as it had been.
The point is that WVU has three losses by a combined seven points. If they would have been as fired up for Temple, Texas Tech and Oklahoma as they were for Virginia, Oklahoma State and Baylor they would be sitting at 18-0 right now and ranked first in the country. I understand that pressing all the time and playing 100 percent all the time is very tough to do. I am sure it takes a physical toll on each player, without a doubt. But they have to look like they want to be there playing. In the three losses, they have not had that thankful look on their faces (with the exception of Teyvon Myers, who would smile even if he sat on the end of the bench, on the floor while doing nothing but distributing water to his teammates).
In sports, a team cannot only get fired up and ready to go when another top 10 team is sitting across from you. You have to be ready to play all the time against anybody. It seems as if the Mountaineers have gotten bored with some of their opponents and it’s causing a big lack of focus. To be an elite team, you play like your pants are on fire against the blue bloods and the bottom dwellers. West Virginia can get there, but right now, as much as the fans do not want to admit it, they are not elite.
However, three losses by a combined seven points shows that just a tad more effort here and a tiny bit more hustle there, and elite status could start being talked about.
The Mountaineers will look to get back on track this Saturday night at Kansas State.