There's no more telling evidence of this lack than the start of the second half of West Virginia's game against Marshall. Trailing by 14 points, the Mountaineers knew they needed to come out and cut into the lead early, and play with some of the emotion that was so sadly absent in the first half. Instead, they laid another, even bigger, egg. In the first four minutes, the lackadaisical, careless squad yielded an alley-oop dunk and three wide open 3-pointers, which turned the deficit into a yawning 24-point chasm. At that point, WVU finally started playing like it cared, but by then it was too late. The grave dug by its passionless play, the Mountaineers suffered a loss that it should not have.
Head coach Bob Huggins has reiterated the importance of playing had and paying attention every game out, and it seemed as if the lesson finally took after losses to St. John's and Marquette. However, four consecutive wins seemingly caused those lessons to disappear, leading to a bitter loss in which, yes, the other team wanted it more. Huggins can't read his players' minds, and has said on more than one occasion that he has no idea what they're thinking. A trip straight to the sources, however, provides little illumination.
Listen, for example to junior Kevin Jones.
"Not paying attention in shootaround, and not doing what we are supposed to during the game and a lack of energy on our part," he said, enumerating the reasons for West Virginia's lack of fire. "We didn't come out and prove that we wanted it. The hungrier team is going to win the game, and they were more aggressive."
True enough, but why? Were veterans such as he unsuccessful in relating the fact that this game is the entire season for the Herd?
"We didn't forget what the game is like. I honestly don't know what it was," Jones said. "Problems compounded on top of problems, and we got ourselves into a hole. That was our fault for not coming to play and not being ready."
Another team leader, senior Joe Mazzulla, likewise couldn't come up with a reason, instead offering another recap of what happened.
"They did a great job of keeping the intensity up the entire time, and maybe it was a little bit of playing not to lose rather than playing to win. We didn't execute, and we didn't play with the emotion and passion that we did in the last four games."
It's disturbing that two of West Virginia's team leaders recognize the problem, but aren't able to find a cause or put any solutions into place. And that troubling thought amplifies when it's also reflected by the team's emotional leader, senior John Flowers. When asked the same question, a disconsolate and frustrated Flowers gave the answer that clearly resonates with every member of the team.
"I have no idea. No idea. We talked about coming out and playing hard to get back into the game and we came out flat. It was just like in the beginning. We came out flat and weren't ready to play."
Huggins remained mystified after the game as well.
"How do you start the game and drop the ball out of bounds?" he asked of West Virginia's opening possession, which, in retrospect, was a harbinger of WVU's "effort" for much of the game. "The biggest indicator that you aren't ready to play is that you get kicked on the glass and you don't make free throws. Look at any team where their mind is not 100% [on the game] and that's what happens."
Until the Mountaineers learn that they aren't good enough to "out-talent" most of the teams on their schedule, they are going to continue to lose games such as this. And while this one loss isn't the end of the season by any means (at least for WVU) it highlights a disturbing trend of lack of attention, focus and effort. Those shortcomings probably won't be enough to keep WVU out of the NCAA tournament, but they will cost it anything resembling a good seed, which is a huge factor in advancing in March. The difference between a four or five seed and, say, a nine or a ten is large, and often plays a big part in winning on the opening weekend and getting to the Sweet 16. West Virginia learned that lesson a couple of years ago, when it put out a lackluster effort in a loss to Dayton in the opening round.
Is there a solution to the problem? Jones offered a simple one – and one that has been lectured to students on every level for hundreds of years.
"We have to pay more attention."
For this team, at least at this point, that's easier said than done.