MORGANTOWN — West Virginia is winning on want to, not how to.
That’s a good thing and a bad thing.
You look on the Internet and see they are ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll. You look at the record and it’s 9-1, the one loss being in a game they never, ever should have lost, allowing a 14-point lead over LSU evaporate into a one-point defeat.
Then you go to see them play and wonder how they do it.
This isn’t your traditional basketball team. It doesn’t shoot well enough to win, right down to the point that free throws are a challenge.
It has a superstar in Juwan Staten, yes, the Big 12’s Preseason Player of the Year, but he hasn’t yet found the gear that made him a superstar a year ago. The system has changed, both offensively and defensively, and his role has changed, so much so that against Marshall, with the Mountaineers trailing in the second half, he sat out seven minutes.
Gary Browne, his senior, was playing better, Bob Huggins said.
“I told them from Day 1 that everyone was going to get a chance,” Huggins explained after pulling out a three-point victory, 69-66, over Marshall. “I have got to play the guys that I think are playing the best at that particular time, so I did.
“The honest to God truth: Gary Browne was kind of in a slump. He has been in the gym. Jevon Carter has been in the gym. They were there early and they stay late. I just think the basketball gods smile down on and care about people who care about the game. We have a lot guys that generally are in there, that haven’t been.”
So, at a crucial time in a crucial game, WVU went with its star on the bench, got back into the game, then brought him in and got him to make two huge plays down the stretch to pull out the victory.
It’s been that way. West Virginia is playing winning basketball without playing winning basketball.
Its center is having trouble making layups. And he’s not alone.
This is “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
They are making 40.8 percent of their shots, which ranks 271st in the nation … and, yes, you read that right.
They are making 28.6 percent of their 3-point shots, which ranks 269th in the nation.
They are making 65.3 percent of their free throws, which ranks 255th in the nation.
In the areas that traditionally produce points, they rank 271, 269 and 255 … and are 9-1.
Because they stand alone in areas that all too often are overlooked in winning basketball games.
West Virginia leads the nation with 19.7 offensive rebounds per game … which means it is getting back a whole lot of those shots they miss. They lead the nation in steals through their “Forty Minutes of Fury” defense with 137, 20 more than Minnesota, the second-place team.
That’s like getting 33 more chances a game.
The result is they have taken 672 shots to 482 for their opponents. That’s 19 more shots a game. Shooting 40 percent means they are scoring eight more baskets a game than they should be scoring.
They are winning with sweat.
“Coach has a lot of intensity and he just wants what’s best for us,” said newcomer Jonathan Holton, the man who holds the key to the pressure defense with his length and athleticism. “All he really wants is for us to play hard. If we play hard, everything else will come to itself.”
At that is just what is happening.
WVU is forcing other teams to play the game the Mountaineers want them to play. They force them to play 90 feet of offense and to play 40 minutes of basketball.
They are as physical as was Huggins as a player, as intense as Huggins was as a player and is as a coach.
You are going to have to survive playing against the Mountaineers before you can defeat them.
Some would say it’s winning ugly, but then beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and when the beholder is Bob Huggins, this is as good as it gets … although he would take a free throw falling every so often.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel