Tipping Point

There's a ceiling on this West Virginia basketball team. Where, exactly, that is remains to be seen.

The Mountaineers have seemingly solved portions of the shooting quagmire. Terry Henderson has emerged as a legitimate outside threat, and one that can attack the rim and score from the paint as well. Eron Harris' jumper has found its range, and Jabarie Hinds is getting to the bucket with intent to finish, rather than simply draw a foul. That, and better ball movement and shot selection, has allowed a once-lagging WVU offense to shoot at clips of 57, 46, and 51 percent, respectively, in its recent three-game streak against Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.

Gary Browne might show the most hustle of any Mountaineer. Deniz Kilicli's hot-cold style has been warming, and Aaric Murray keeps making key plays on both ends. Kevin Noreen continues his nuts-and-bolts play, and others like Dominique Rutledge, Keaton Miles and Juwan Staten have added dashes of medicine to what ailed West Virginia well into midseason. But lest one think a corner has been turned, that righting of the ship is surefire, consider that all the positive has come in a bit of a scheduling lull.

The Mountaineers just played bottom feeder TCU, a lacking team even in the Mountain West prior to its move to the Big 12, twice in a six-game stretch. The remotely decent teams WVU defeated, Texas and Texas Tech, are a combined 4-16 in Big 12 play. Add in TCU's mark of 1-10, and that drops to an abysmal 5-26. West Virginia got lambasted by 14 against an unranked Oklahoma State squad, and its narrow loss to Kansas, once a warm and fuzzy, now seems a bit lesser as the Jayhawks were going into a bit of a free fall that just began to be righted Monday in a solid home win over Kansas State.

The looming question, about to be answered at Baylor on Wednesday, is if West Virginia can keep surging against a better quality foe. Are there answers for what's to come? Can Henderson handle improved on-ball pressure? Will Kilicli's bullish mentality dissipate against quicker, more athletic foes that are playing solidly? Will the Mountaineers, as a whole, be able to amp up their game to match that of the upper-level Big 12 teams? Thus far, it hasn't happened.

It has been well-documented that WVU has beaten all the teams below it in the Big 12 standings – and lost to every team above it, except Baylor. The mathematics of the situation dictate West Virginia is right where it deserves to be in the Big 12, solidly in seventh place at 5-5 overall and fighting to break into the top half. And that makes Wednesday's 9 p.m. contest a big one. The Mountaineers are, to their credit, one of only three league teams with a winning conference road record. But those road wins comprise, not surprisingly, the bottom three – that glorious triumvirate of Texas, Texas Tech and TCU that keeps the local squad from the cellar.

Know this: If West Virginia somehow manages to knock off Baylor in Waco, it will be its most psychologically imperative win of the season to date, including the victory early in the year against Virginia Tech. The Bears are 15-8 overall, 4-1 at home, and yet quite capable of being defeated by this WVU team. Head coach Scott Drew's BU program hasn't blown foes away in the Ferrell Center, besting Texas by 7, TCU by 11, Oklahoma State by 10 and actually losing to Oklahoma. This is the de facto game that could showcase just how far the Mountaineers have come – and how far they can go, or have to fall.

The season might well tilt either way, and it seems to hinge on the results versus Baylor, both Wednesday and a fortnight later in the Feb. 27 penultimate home game. If West Virginia can win in Waco, it flashes a four-game streak entering a stretch in which it plays three home games over the next four against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor. All are winnable. Sweep Baylor and slip by Tech, and West Virginia is at worst 15-13, 8-7 with the potential for 16-12, 9-6. That's wins in six or seven of eight and it sets up a closing stretch in which a red-hot team can let it loose at Kansas before a match-up with Oklahoma in Norman in what should be a grudge match.

Get swept by Baylor, and WVU is likely staring at 13-15 and 6-9 in the Big 12, with losses in four of five games heading into what amounts to the final feet of a tailspin with the road games at Kansas and Oklahoma followed by Iowa State in Morgantown. A finish of 13-18 then isn't out of the question. The likelihood, as with most extremes, is that the Mountaineers tally is somewhere in between. But at the risk of stating the obvious, if West Virginia can't win at Baylor, it makes a quality season significantly harder than what it otherwise would have been.

The tipping point, is seems, has been reached and Baylor is its name. The Bears are the target, both schedule- and standings-wise, and are the significant, but not insurmountable, next hurdle for this basketball team to continue its upward trajectory. From the schedule to individual play, the time has arrived to prove the collective worth. Keep that snowball rolling, and it starts to increase in size and speed as it heads downhill. Allow it to break apart now, and it likely takes a significant chunk of the entire body of work with it.


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