By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia University gets a chance to show if its recent three-game winning streak is the real deal or a mirage as it travels back to Texas to play in Waco tonight against Baylor in a game crucial to the Mountaineers’ attempt to make a late run to the NCAA Tournament.
Tipoff is 9 p.m., and the game is televised on ESPN2.
No one can doubt that WVU has been an improved team of late, losing by just five points at home to Kansas at a time when the Jayhawks were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation, then following that with the three-game winning streak.
However, before anyone goes off doing backflips, the three teams WVU defeated — Texas, Texas Tech and TCU — are the three teams below them in the Big 12 standings and have combined for just five victories in conference play, as many as WVU itself has won in the league.
Baylor is a different animal, however, with a 15-8 overall record that includes a non-conference victory over defending national champion Kentucky.
The Bears stand at 6-4 in league play, which makes this a key game for the Mountaineers, who could move into a tie with Baylor at 6-5 with the upset victory. The way things are going in the Big 12, the top spots in the conference are not out of reach of WVU.
Two games separate the top six teams and WVU stands seventh, just a game behind that and could push itself into NCAA consideration with a few upsets down the stretch.
Certainly, with the Mountaineers’ newfound ability to shoot, that is not out of the realm of possibility.
When asked the difference in his team during this three-game winning streak, Huggins laid it on the fact that his team has begun scoring.
“We finally made some shots,” he said. “I think we’ve shot over 50 percent two of the three (wins). For us, when we make shots we give ourselves a chance.”
The difference has been Deniz Kilicli making inside shots he was butchering earlier in the season and freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris finding their shooting touches.
Had that been happening earlier in the conference schedule, things might have been different.
“In all honesty, we’ve been so close,” Huggins said. “We were real close to beating Kansas State here and Iowa State there. We never got over the hump and finished those games. Hopefully we have the confidence now.”
Scott Drew, the Baylor coach, has seen the changes in the Mountaineers on film.
“All year long they have been solid defensively and very good on the boards. The offense has picked up now. They have a couple of guys (Henderson and Harris) making more shots and playing more. When you add that to good defense and rebounding, that’s what gets you wins,” he said.
This, though, is a different kind of team that WVU is facing.
Baylor is a high-powered offensive team that averages 75.4 points a game, to rank 34th in the nation in scoring. They do with a high-powered, two-way point guard in Pierre Jackson, who averages 19.1 points a game and 6.7 assists a game, setting everything up.
“I think he is certainly one of the best players in the league,” Huggins said. “He can really score. He does a great job with ball screens. They can get you spread. They have a number of other guys capable of making shots.”
And because of that you can’t cheat on Jackson, because when he hits the open man, the open man hits the shot.
Baylor not only is high scoring, but it is a high-flying team, ranking 18th in the nation in rebounding, averaging just about 40 a game. WVU, with as much emphasis as it puts on rebounding, averages just 36 per contest.
To make matters worse, WVU has been outrebounded in four of its last five games, and in the one game it had more rebounds than its opponent it took in just 23 rebounds.
“It’s hard to be successful if you can’t hold your own on glass,” Drew said. “This year and last year we’ve been better than in the past. With the offensive numbers across the board in college basketball today, there’s more of a premium on rebounding because there’s more misses to get.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.