The Times West Virginian

January 25, 2014

‘Make or break’ time for WVU

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Coming off a nice home win over Texas Tech in which they gave indications of how good a team they can be on the offensive side of the ball, the West Virginia University Mountaineers head into a month-long stretch of games that will define their season.

Eight of their next nine games through Feb. 6 are against nationally ranked teams, and the other game is as big a challenge, going to Texas, a team also receiving votes in the polls and possibly ready to move into the Top 25 next week.

The Mountaineer players know what lies ahead for them and how important it is to their post-season chances.

“I would just describe this stretch as college basketball,” point guard Juwan Staten responded when asked to describe this stretch of games. “The Big 12 is definitely a good conference this season, definitely better than we expected, but that’s college basketball. It’s what you dream about, though.

“This stretch here can make or break our season, and we’re looking forward to it. We just need to come out with a sense of urgency and punch teams in the mouth from the jump ball.”

This is the way the games come about:

Today — At No. 11-12 Oklahoma State

Jan. 28 — At No. 23-24 Baylor

Feb. 1 – No. 22 Kansas State

Feb. 5 – No. 25 Oklahoma

Feb. 8 — At No. 8-11 Kansas

Feb. 10 – No. 16-17 Iowa State

Feb. 15 — At Texas

Feb. 22 – No. 23-24 Baylor

Feb. 26 – No. 16-17 Iowa State

West Virginia missed post-season play last season and wants to make up for that.

But doing that won’t be easy and it will require Staten, Terry Henderson and Eron Harris to have more games like the Texas Tech encounter when Henderson carved out a new career high of 28 points, Harris contributed 15 and Staten scored 16 with seven assists.

“When Terry makes shots we’re a great team,” Staten said.

And Henderson, brimming with confidence, should blossom after having his best game since coming to WVU from Raleigh, N.C.

This is a rematch coming up with Oklahoma State at 2 p.m. In the season’s first meeting in Morgantown, WVU almost pulled off a stunning upset.

Markel Brown hit a 3-point field goal for the Cowboys, his only 3 of the game, with 15 seconds left to lift them to a 73-72 victory, and then Staten missed a driving layup that could have won the game and Marcus Smart made a spectacular play to break up the rebound as Devin Williams was about to secure with a chance to hit a follow.

“We’re close,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins at the time. “Our problem is that we have a whole bunch of freshmen who don’t understand that when you stop playing hard that people take advantage of you. When you stop playing hard, then they do that.”

Especially a team as talented as Oklahoma State, which is led by Marcus Smart, whom many consider to be among the top candidates for Naismith Player of the Year in college basketball. Toss in Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins, and you have an all-star cast of characters.

Nearly pulling off the upset gave WVU a midseason lift.

“As young as we are, that game gave us the belief that we can play with anybody,” Huggins said. “We have a little more bounce in our step and got more confidence back.

“You guard a little better. You play with more enthusiasm.

“They had a guy make the game-winning shot who hasn’t made a shot in a month. If he misses that, we win. If we make our layup, we win. Then there was Marcus Smart, to break up the rebound from where he came from, to me, that’s the play of the year. That’s a player.

“We’re going to try to fix some things in the zone to stop the things that hurt us.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.