By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was a fair question to ask, really, as West Virginia University took the floor for a Big Monday meeting with Texas at the Coliseum, their second meeting of the Big 12 season.
The question that had been broached in the Big 12 coaches’ conference call that morning was whether or not this WVU team was a different team — and by different one can assume it was meant better, too — than the one that had edged Texas on its home court far back on Jan. 9.
Considering this was a newly constructed team, one that was without a strong senior presence beyond Deniz Kilicli and that was working in three transfers and a group of freshmen, it was a team that one would presume would grow with the season.
And when the season opened with a 34-point loss to Gonzaga, it became painfully obvious that there would be many growing pains along the way.
But now we were moving into the second half of the Big 12 season, by now WVU had to have figured out who it was and what it could accomplish. It should have seen growth in the play of its younger players and a cohesiveness of unit that made it operate smoother than it had during those early days.
What hurts most is that while there has been some growth, it really hasn’t been overwhelming and coach Bob Huggins is all too aware of it. In fact, when asked if he noticed a difference in his team from a month ago when it faced Texas the first time and how it was playing at present, his answer didn’t exactly point out many improvements.
“We’re playing the freshmen a little more than during the earlier game, but other than that, no,” he said.
In other words, many of the same mistakes that were being made then and the problems that existed then were still part of his team’s persona as January has turned to February.
“I think what our guys have learned is to take it one game at a time,” Huggins did say. “I know that sounds cliché-ish, but honestly, earlier in the year they would be talking about playing someone else other than who we were playing. Obviously, then we didn’t play with the intensity we needed to be able to compete.”
So he felt his team was learning how to focus on an opponent, a necessary ingredient in preparing for games and having the narrow focus necessary to be ready to play.
Certainly that came about in the Kansas game, which was a narrow loss to one of the nation’s top teams, and it was part of being able to win at Texas Tech, although in all honesty the team the Mountaineers defeated in Lubbock is not exactly a polished team capable of winning many games.
The biggest difference is that Huggins has found some freshmen upon whom he can count, freshmen who weren’t ready when he first faced Texas. The two biggest examples can be found in Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, a pair of freshmen who have shown an ability to score points.
In the Texas game, each went 1 for 6 shooting the ball, combining for 1 for 7 from 3-point range.
In the last outing, at Texas Tech, Harris had 18 points with three 3-point shots, and Henderson, who has been fighting back problems, had nine points on three 3s in 10 minutes of play.
They have been giving Huggins a scoring option he didn’t have earlier in the year when they were learning how to play in college.
Harris has emerged as the go-to guy for WVU.
But that isn’t what Huggins likes most about him.
“The biggest thing is he kind of knows what he’s doing. He’s guarding,” the coach said. “He actually wants to guard the best perimeter guy. He’s helping us rebound the ball and obviously, he’s making shots.”
In truth, the making the shots comes in last with Huggins compared to his desire to guard the toughest perimeter player and to rebound, signs of toughness and a willingness to work at the game.
“When you start out with those guys they just don’t know enough,” Huggins said. “Eron really wants to learn. He wants to be a good player. He’s one of those guys you tell him something and he does it. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Considering how this team has gone, not making the same mistake over and over makes you a superstar in the coaches’ eyes.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.