Why Not Sooner?

In the midst of a season that was already lost, Monday night's 61-56 loss to Kansas didn't matter much. But had West Virginia played every game with this level of effort and grit, that wouldn't be the case.

The Mountaineers, now 9-11 overall and 2-5 in Big 12 play, are long past the point at which moral victories matter even in the slightest. Thus, there was no sense of consolation that WVU had played the No. 1 team in the coaches poll closer than probably even the most diehard of West Virginia fans expected.

And that is as it should be. The biggest question surrounding this Mountaineer team is if it might somehow sneak into the field of the CBI or CIT at season's end.

But what should only add to the frustration is that this team showed that Bob Huggins was right: these guys are good enough, given the requisite levels of effort and intensity, to compete with just about anyone.

"This is one of the hardest we've played ... we had one day to prepare for them, so we just had to go out and play and stick to our principles," guard Juwan Staten said. "I think we did a good job taking them out of what they do, making it difficult on them to score baskets. We didn't quite play for 40 minutes, but I think we played with a lot of intensity."

To be clear, this wasn't Kansas' best night. Typically a strong free throw shooting team, it missed 16 foul shots (on 34 attempts) on Monday. It turned the ball over 16 times.

No matter, though. If not for a late meltdown offensively (WVU scored only six points over a span of 10 minutes late in the game), West Virginia could have very easily won this game. And it wasn't exactly like the Mountaineers brought their best game either -- the guards were a combined 0-of-8 from 3-point range and the team shot only 37 percent from the field overall.

Neither team played its best game, but WVU was still nearly good enough to knock off the Jayhawks. It may not be a moral victory, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

"I felt as though we energized each other," said Aaric Murray, who showed flashes of the sort of play many expected from him, scoring 17 points and adding seven rebounds.

But why did it take until now for this to happen? Why did the Mountaineers need to host a team ranked at the top of the national polls to galvanize into a unit that plays hard for the vast majority of 40 minutes?

That's the question that no one seems to be able to answer -- not the players themselves, and certainly not Huggins, who repeatedly told reporters he doesn't know much of the team's mentality even at this point in the season.

That would seem to be problematic, the coach not knowing what is going through his players' heads as the season moves into its final weeks. Asked if he thought his players understood they likely would have a better record at this point had they played, say, Kansas State and Oklahoma with the effort they displayed Monday night, Huggins was noncommittal.

"I just never know what we're going to do," he said. "It seems like when we've made shots, we miss free throws. When the offense kind of ran, we didn't guard."

It seems an easy lesson to learn, but WVU apparently didn't take it in until late January. And at this point, it remains to be seen if this game will ultimately be an anomaly or a sign of better things to come.

Either way, it never should have come to this. West Virginia would have been in a better position at this point in the season if it had only cared more earlier in the year. It shouldn't take a visit from the nation's top-ranked team to make the game matter to those who play it.


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