In The Balance

The effort is undoubtedly better. Jump shooting, a seemingly impossible task earlier this season, was even going WVU's way. But it still wasn't enough against No. 18 Kansas State, and this entire season could easily go into a tailspin as a result.

West Virginia's players were undoubtedly down in the mouth after Saturday's 65-64 loss to the Wildcats, one that saw them fight gamely, taking a late lead before one critical defensive error (Dominique Rutledge's foul with 22 seconds left) and one offensive lapse (Jabarie Hinds' failure to cleanly catch an inbounds pass with 9.1 seconds left).

For once, they had reason to legitimately complain about the actual on-court errors they had committed -- poor foul shooting (12-of-22), a lack of rebounding in the first half (four total boards, none on the offensive end), the two late mistakes -- instead of a lack of effort.

This was a clear step forward.

West Virginia, in so many ways, should have won this game. It shot as well as K-State (51 percent from the field for each team). It matched the nation's leading offensive rebounding team chance-for-chance (nine offensive boards and eight second-chance points for each squad). It got to the line eight more times.

Players could acknowledge those facts and the way they showed how much this team has progressed in the last week. They truly have bought into the "Find A Way" mentality coach Bob Huggins is attempting to instill.

But they were still understandably forlorn. And they must now -- pardon the obvious wordplay -- find a way to avoid going into the tank mentally.

"Everybody's head was down. We shouldn't be down, because we worked hard ... we should have had it," guard Eron Harris said of the attitude in the locker room after the game.

"We've just got to stay level emotionally. We're always going to give our all, and we can't take plays off. But emotionally, we've got to stay level. That's what we're working on. We've got some guys that are up-and-down emotionally, but once they get right, we'll be fine."

The Mountaineers, now 8-7 and 1-2 in Big 12 play, don't have much time to allow for those guys to "get right" mentally. It will be tough to fight off the obvious disappointment from this loss, but if WVU players can't do so, this season could go into the tank for good in the next week.

It's a tough time to have to head on the road for two games -- especially since the team failed to protect its home court in its first two Big 12 games in Morgantown. But games against Iowa State and Purdue are now absolute must-haves if this team wants to enter February with any hope of making the NCAA Tournament.

But both games are very much winnable. Purdue has been struggling all season long, and Iowa State has lost vast majority of its games against quality opponents. If West Virginia goes into these games with its confidence still high, expecting to win, it has every chance to do so.

Go into the tank mentally, though? Both games could be losses and this team may be scrapping to even sniff the NIT come March.

For the first time all season, the signs of better execution and effort are clearly there. This isn't an awful basketball team. What happens from here will almost entirely be a by-product of how WVU handles this latest bit of adversity.

We'll find out if this team has truly grown up when it next steps on the court.


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