By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
That his team has played just .500 ball certainly has been troubling to West Virginia University basketball coach Bob Huggins, considering he had held high hopes coming into the season, but the wins and the losses really aren’t what hurt the most as No. 14/14 Oklahoma State comes to the Coliseum for a 2 p.m. game today.
Huggins understands that there were some games his team could have won, even should have won, and that had the Mountaineers done so might have made a big difference in how the season played out.
What he doesn’t understand is why this team has failed to improve … not necessarily since the start of the season, but since last season when it struggled to finish with 19 victories and took a first-round loss in the NCAA’s.
“I was thinking this morning, if we really look back, we had the Connecticut game won in the first round of the Big East Tournament last year and we handed it to them,” Huggins said. “Same guys; it’s the same guys.”
He’s talking of players like Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne and Keaton Miles and Aaron Brown.
“You say, ‘Well, they’re sophomores.’ Last year we said, ‘Well, they’re freshmen. They’ll get better. They have to get better because we constantly been giving the ball to people for some unexplained reasons.’
“If you remember,” Huggins continued, “we were just standing there holding the ball and (Shabazz) Napier just stole it out of our hands twice and shot layups, which is kind of unexplainable. There was a lot of that kind of thing that happened with the same guys a year ago.”
And it has happened this season, and Huggins keeps wondering why and how.
“I don’t know it’s adversity,” he said. “It’s like the Texas Tech game. We get ahead and kind of relax, stop playing.”
That was a game in which WVU held an 8-point lead with 2:31 to go and nearly squandered it away, something that has been atypical of the Mountaineers over the years under Huggins.
“The thing we’ve been pretty good here at is we’ve been consistent playing every play. We don’t take plays off. Guys would talk about not taking plays off,” Huggins said, “but this group has taken plays off on a consistent basis.”
This is something Huggins has put a great deal of thought into, something he hopes will change with experience.
He’s seen that happen before.
“Da’Sean Butler wouldn’t mind me telling you this. He took some plays off as a sophomore. He wasn’t in the condition he got eventually himself into. He was a sophomore. The following year and the year after, he didn’t take plays off,” Huggins said.
“When you talked to him, he really took it to heart. It’s where these guys have to get to. It’s not like they don’t know. It’s not like they haven’t heard it. They kind of regurgitate what the coaches say right back to the media. It sounds good, but do they mean it?”
Until they do mean it, until they understand that you can’t play basketball at this level at anything less than full out, they won’t succeed.
And they will need it today against a team that buried them the first time around, 80-66, hitting 10 of 19 3s.
Freshman Phil Forte in particular picked the Mountaineers apart, hitting a career-high 26 points, making 6 of 11 from 3-point range.
“If I’m not mistaken, I think the guards scored 63 of their 80 or something ridiculous like that in the first game. They’re hard to guard,” Huggins said. “Forte has such great range. He spreads you. You think you’ve got him, and he just takes a couple of steps back and scores.”
Markel Brown, the other guard, had 26 points, and Huggins says he’s “probably as good an athlete as there is.”
The difference in the game, however, came when Oklahoma State when to a zone and took advantage of WVU’s inability to make shots or protect the ball.
“They threw token pressure at us and we threw it to them,” Huggins said. “We drove through pressure and threw up a layup that hit the bottom of the backboard. We didn’t and haven’t handled adversity well. Then we just missed a bunch of shots.”
Since playing Oklahoma State the Mountaineers have developed an identity built around the inside play of Deniz Kilicli and will try to establish his presence inside.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bhertzel.