On The Brink

West Virginia's problems aren't new. That's not likely to provide much reassurance to Bob Huggins after the Mountaineers' fourth loss in five games.

Notre Dame became the latest in a line of Big East teams to take advantage of WVU's shortcomings, making critical plays on both ends down the stretch while the Mountaineers wilted. The Irish won 55-51 at the Coliseum on Wednesday.

There were problems throughout. West Virginia still has no answer for a 2-3 zone defense, as a stretch in the first half showed. Offensive depth is nonexistent, as it took more than 32 minutes for WVU to get even four players in the scoring column.

But those issues, critical though they may be, pale in comparison to the fundamental lack of execution that occurred in the decisive final minutes.

Somehow, in spite of their shortcomings, the Mountaineers (16-9, 6-6) had taken a three-point lead. But some strong plays from the Fighting Irish, combined with WVU miscues, allowed the visitors to go on one of the quickest 11-0 runs you'll ever see.

Yes, Notre Dame was only 2-of-18 from 3-point range entering that stretch run. But coach Mike Brey's club has made its living from beyond the arc all season, so it should have been no surprise that the guards weren't going to be gun-shy down the stretch.

But West Virginia continued to make the fundamental mistake of going under high ball screens, allowing shooters quality looks at the basket. The results? Trifectas on three consecutive Irish possessions -- from Eric Atkins, then Jerian Grant, then Scott Martin.

Martin leaked out to the perimeter after setting a high ball screen and was essentially unmolested. It's the sort of defensive mistake a team simply can't make in a pivotal situation against a good team if it hopes to win.

One of WVU's two seniors, Truck Bryant, had a miserable game. A turnover he committed set up one of those Irish 3-pointers, and he then missed his only shot of the second half -- a layup -- to complete a scoreless outing.

At least those are problems of execution, and ones that are at least -- in theory -- correctable in practices.

But the fact Deniz Kilicli said even at this point in the season many players just don't know the Mountaineers' plays should set off alarm bells. There is no excuse for that entering mid-February, regardless of how many freshmen are on the roster.

Put it all together and you get what you've seen on the court from West Virginia lately: namely, ugly play and losses. You can watch the frustration mounting for Kevin Jones, who seems increasingly exasperated with each missed shot and missed assignment.

Still, Jones played the role of good soldier after the loss, saying WVU's season isn't teetering on the precipice of utter collapse.

The facts don't agree with that contention. The Mountaineers' RPI is lofty, but it can only take so many hits before it, too, falls away.

West Virginia is only .500 in the Big East and faces a tough slate in its final six regular season games. Anything less than .500 might not be enough to make the NCAA Tournament.

Thus, if WVU is to rescue anything from this season, it must start now. Its players, regardless of their age, must start to play better fundamental basketball throughout the entirety of games.

Anything less leaves the outcome of every game -- and, truly, the Mountaineers' season -- in doubt.


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