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January 26, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Huggins: WVU close to being a top contender

MORGANTOWN — No one knows better than Bob Huggins that his West Virginia Mountaineers lost, 81-75, at No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon.

He knows, too, that the whispers have begun that things are not much different this year than they were last year when the Mountaineers went 13-19 and stayed home for the post season. With a string of games against ranked teams on tap now for the next month, it looks like it might be another losing season and another idle March.

Or not.

See, Bob Huggins believes things aren’t as they are being looked at from the outside in.

“We’re close,” he maintained in the moment directly after the game. “For all those people who want to say we’re not close, we’re close to being really good. We’re a little short on the front line, but I think we’re close to being good.

“I told them we can’t do what we did the last time we played these guys and just have no enthusiasm when Texas came in,” Huggins continued. “We have to go to Baylor with great enthusiasm and come back and win a game. We’re a good enough team to beat virtually anybody. We’ve just been so close and haven’t done it.”

There is a difference in this year’s team and last year’s, a rather sizeable difference.

Last season’s Mountaineers played without heart. They really didn’t have an identity.

This year’s team, while lacking in certain areas, is a team that tries. It plays to its limits and when you consider that it doesn’t have a dominant big man and that it relies on freshmen and sophomores in key roles, it is going to take a while more to reach its potential.

But Huggins senses it is stretching toward that potential.

Consider this game. Oklahoma State was beating opponents by an average of 32 points per contest on its home court.

The closest anyone had come was 13 points and that was Texas, a team that figures to be ranked in the Top 25 this week.

WVU cut that in half and did so despite severe foul trouble, trouble that limited everyone on the roster to 21 or fewer minutes other than point guard Juwan Staten and guard Terry Henderson.

No fewer than four WVU players fouled out, including Eron Harris, keeping him from going off on a monster afternoon. As it was, Harris finished with 21 points on 6 of 10 shooting from the field, all six field goals coming from 3-point range on just seven attempts.

Put that with 19 points from Staten, who also had four assists but had a rare day with more turnovers than assists as he was charged with five.

“It’s scouting and people are starting double team Wannie and he’s starting to get tired,” Huggins said. “We have to rely on our backup point guard but Gary didn’t play very well. He turned it over too much.”

But it was the officiating toward both sides that kept this from being a game decided by the players.

“I don’t know, this is a totally different game than what I think we’re all used to watching. It’s a continual parade to the foul line,” Huggins said after the game.

In all there were 56 fouls called, 34 of them on WVU.

It was the subject of an extra long post-game handshake between Huggins and Cowboys Coach Travis Ford.

“The conversation was in regards to a lot of things. I think we can do better as a league.”

Not only did Harris spend half of the afternoon on the bench, but Oklahoma State was hamstrung when Marcus Smart, who is probably going to be the most decorated player in the league, was rung up with a number of fouls after getting into it with one of the officials.

He wound up fouling out after playing just 25 minutes, and scoring just four points on 1 of 7 shooting, at one point becoming so upset when taken out of the game that went off to the locker room.

But WVU’s last real chance ran out when Harris fouled out.

“I don’t know what to do other than just put your hands straight up in the air. I don’t know how that’s a foul. It’s frustrating,” he said of the play.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.

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