The question is if the Mountaineers can execute at the same level against better competition. WVU, largely via its ability to defend and hit shots, has evened its overall mark at 11-11 and is climbing out of the Big 12 basement at 4-5 with a two-game league win streak. The Mountaineers have beaten all three teams below it in the standings, and lost only to those currently ahead. And with two of the next three games versus TCU and Texas Tech, teams WVU has already defeated, it appears the Mountaineers could indeed piece a few more victories together.
"Just gotta win games," said Huggins, who again insisted following the season sweep of Texas that his team could sneak into the NCAA Tournament. "The formula is very simple. You gotta win games."
West Virginia has done that recently by getting its shooters, especially Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, into advantageous positions. Jabarie Hinds often set-up the duo against Texas, attacking within motion sets and in transition and forcing defenders to help before kicking outside. Henderson made both his three-pointers in a late first half run by WVU, and Harris knocked down two of eight overall. The Mountaineers are also moving the ball better within the sets themselves. Combine the newfound effort and intelligence with an emerging Deniz Kilicli – who Huggins says had two of his best career games in the winning smudge – and WVU seems to have the enough in the arsenal to keep the remainder of the season interesting.
"You can see it. It looked more like us with Jabarie pushing it down the floor and looking for Eron in transition," Huggins said. "How many times did you see Joe Mazzulla do that for Da'Sean (Butler) or Truck (Bryant)do that for Casey (Mitchell), guys they knew could make shots. We are starting to do a better job of that, starting to find Eron and Terry. Eron is moving well. We have to get Terry to be more active."
Since a 79-52 pasting at Purdue, West Virginia has shot 44.7 percent, 38.5 from three, in going 3-2 over its last five. It has forced turnovers regardless of opposition quality. And it held four of the five foes to 61 or fewer points while beginning to meld a proper mindset and blend it with an inside-outside offensive chemistry that should aid it well down the stretch.
"We don't offensive rebound it and score like we did before because we don't have a (Kevin Jones) or a (Devin) Ebanks," Huggins said. "We haven't really forced enough live ball turnovers, and we are starting to do that better, which is gonna increase your shooting percentage. And the truth of the matter is the two freshmen who we thought could make shots when we recruited them, one, they have started to make shots and two, our other guys are looking for them and trying to get them open."
There are still glaring issues. West Virginia, after rallying from down seven, allowed an 11-point cushion to completely deflate before barely finishing off a Texas team that's 10-12 overall, 2-7 in the Big 12. The Mountaineers committed three of their 16 turnovers in the last 2:10, and almost had a fourth when Aaric Murray nearly threw away a pass for a second consecutive possession. Then, up four with five seconds left, West Virginia allowed an offensive rebound and then incredulously fouled Sheldon McClellan on a three-point try. Only a Murray rebound after the intentionally missed last free throw sealed the game.
WVU was also outrebounded 36 to 29 and the Longhorns had 15 second-chance points to WVU's three, a statistic which perhaps made the final seconds even more tense. The Mountaineers are still going through scoring draughts – Texas' last field goal came with 4:37 left, West Virginia's at the 3:35 mark – and there's not enough consistent quality in the majority of phases to believe this team, right now, is on a surefire track to significantly better basketball , let alone Kilicli's comment that the team has "gotta get 10 in a row."
That kind of far-fetched thinking is better reduced to a day-to-day focus. The real tests that will define the season are consecutive home games with Oklahoma State (Feb. 23) and Baylor (Feb. 27) and a road contest at Oklahoma that could showcase any legit progression the program has made. West Virginia has already lost to the Sooners twice, and the March 6 game in Norman figures to be the most difficult of the series trio. First things first, however.
"When you go through years like this, you learn the old cliché, take'em one at a time," Huggins said. "There were other times when we thought we had turned the corner a little bit and we reverted back. I think we got a chance, I really do. We are getting better at guarding. We have started to rebound it better. Deniz's activity has been really good and we are healthy again, too. That is part of it."
West Virginia must beat TCU, winless in the league, before playing Baylor in a midweek game on the road. The Bears are just 5-3 in the Big 12, and have proven beatable in Waco. If the Mountaineers do steal one, the schedule sets up nicely with three of the next four in the Coliseum. Hold serve, and that's possible if not probable against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor, and WVU is 16-12, 9-6 in the conference and winners of seven of eight.
"We have to stay together and keep fighting," Hinds said. "We kept playing (versus Texas). Earlier in the year, we quit playing. Here, we kept playing. … We worked through it. We are trying to build the team chemistry. This is two in a row. We got TCU coming up, try to get three in a row and keep going."