By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In so many ways it came out of nowhere, this resurgence in West Virginia basketball.
At the halfway point in the Big 12 season, Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have become legitimate players, having won three of their last four games to move into a tie for fourth place in the conference standings with Kansas State at 5-4.
Recognition they could not get as they struggled through their first year in the Big 12 last year or as they sought an identity for this year’s team now seems to be coming their way. Junior point guard Juwan Staten, who a year ago quite frankly was among the most disappointing players in the conference, become a candidate for All-Conference consideration.
This week Staten became the first Mountaineer to take down Big 12 Player of the Week honors, averaging 25.0 points, 7.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds as WVU beat both Baylor and Kansas State. Included in that was hitting the game-winning shot against Baylor, tying the school record for free throws made when he canned 18 of 21 against Kansas State.
“He’s studied film. He’s tried to learn the game,” Huggins said on Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “A lot has to do with decision making. He’s gotten so much better with when to go, when not to go, getting the ball to other guys. He’s worked so hard on his shooting. When he’s making that 17-foot jumper he’s hard to guard.”
This is what Kansas State coach Bruce Weber saw out of WVU and the way they used Staten. He was so impressed, in fact, that he didn’t even offer complaints that Staten made double the free throws his entire team made.
“They just decided to go ball screen. They stopped running their motion and their sets,” Weber explained. “They gave it to Staten. If they didn’t get what they wanted, he’d pass it and they gave it to him again. With the new rules, if you get a really good player, it’s impossible to stop him. We have to do a better job moving our feet.”
Everyone is taking note of WVU’s step forward. Fox Sports power rankings had them ninth in the 10-team league a week ago and now has them ranked sixth, saying:
“Juwan Staten is your surprise name who would crash the All-Big 12 team if the season ended today. He’s had at least 14 points in 14 consecutive games. That’s incredible consistency at the college level. Even the league’s big-name talents haven’t had a run like that. Only Marcus Smart (39 vs. Memphis) has topped Staten’s 35-point outburst in the win over Kansas State on Saturday. He only needed 13 shots to do it, too. Getting to the free-throw line 21 times (and making 18) helps.”
The result has been Staten has joined Smart as the two most dominant players in the Big 12 at present. Overall, he leads the Big 12 in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes played and also ranks first in the league in scoring (20.4 ppg) for conference games only.
The result is that WVU, like Texas, has been the most improved teams in the conference.
“We’re getting better.” Huggins admitted. “We were so young to begin the year. Our freshmen are starting to understand what it takes to win in this league. I don’t think they had any idea, as much as the older guys tried to tell them.”
In addition to Staten taking ownership of the team and the freshmen beginning to understand what the college game is all about, Huggins has changed his defensive approach.
“We were trying to do like a lot of people do and that’s not my personality. It’s hard not to coach your personality. We have gone back to pressure people more and push them out on the floor,” Huggins explained.
West Virginia has not paid much attention to the Big 12 standings.
“I’m sure they have looked at it but it hasn’t been that big a point of discussion,” Huggins said. “We let the Oklahoma State loss at home bother us more than we should have. Win or lose, you have to forget about it and get ready for the next game.
“Our focus has been our next opponent. We haven’t looked down the road.”
West Virginia comes out and tries to pull off another home surprise hosting Oklahoma at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Coliseum.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.