Sure, the Mountaineers have shown themselves capable of handling the Big 12's bottom-feeders in TCU and Texas Tech. And the season sweep of the latter, with a snapping of the Raiders' two-game winning smudge, including a victory over then-No. 12 Baylor, was what had to happen on Wednesday for WVU to have even a decent chance at getting to the postseason. West Virginia, now 11-8, 3-3 in the Big 12, resides solidly in sixth place, just, as Eron Harris noted, "one game out of second place." Only Kansas, at 5-0 in the league and 14-5 overall, seems poised to claim yet another regular season championship.
Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State are all tied for second, and the last two of those have solid win over West Virginia. Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers' next opponent, is fifth at 3-2. But it would take a shocker of an upset in Stillwater for West Virginia to be even be contemplated among the upper half of the league. Put simply, there's little reason to believe WVU capable of playing better than it did in the 73-72 home loss to the Cowboys on January 11. The heartbreaker likely bled into the defeat versus Texas, though a glaring rebounding deficiency was also to blame. The Mountaineers' main issue is a lack of consistency.
One night it can hit shots, the next it can't. It finishes games, puts the ball in the right hands on offense and delivers on defense – then it doesn't. It scores from outside, then fails to get back on transition and essentially gives away points on the other end. Defenders fail to fight through screens and find their man, jumpstarting a 16-0 Texas Tech run that morphs a 20-10 lead into a 26-20 deficit. Head coach Bob Huggins, turning to his bench, summed it best at that moment. "Great," he said, "Now we're going to have to fight our butts off." Only he didn't say butts. Yet that single word might capture the essence of this team more than any other.
It can defend, but… . It can shoot, but… . The rebounding game has buts. The offensive execution has buts. Interior defense, perimeter offense, fundamentals. It all ebbs and flows with this team, and one never knows from moment to moment what might transpire, which is perhaps the biggest of issues for West Virginia.
"It's a matter of us playing hard the whole game instead of our habit of getting up and people and then letting them back in the game," Harris said. "Our spirit, our energy, our Xs and Os, our defense. Everything was better (against Texas Tech)."
Which is what it will take the remainder of the year. Catastrophic loss avoided, West Virginia now turns to a stretch in which it plays an astounding eight ranked foes in its next nine games, including six consecutive starting at Oklahoma State. It is the most difficult stretch in the history of any league play for the Mountaineers and, if one examines the rest of the 12-game slate, just two contests come against unrated teams. The 10-member Big 12 leads the nation in RPI and, of now, has seven teams in the NCAA Tournament in the latest ESPN Bracketology. Still, the Mountaineer players aren't yet convinced that they can't compete in this grinder, even if others have already penned the end story.
"We are 3-3 in the conference and one game out of second place," Harris said. "We go in Saturday and get a win, and we are second in the conference and there are people who have already wrote us off. We have to stay positive and worry about us as a team and not outside factors. Worry about what we are doing and we will be fine."
This much is certain: There can be no stretches of play in which West Virginia fails to show effort, to execute the basics, to use the fundamentals and hustle – like racing back on defense and staying with an opposing offensive player throughout the set – or it will have no chance to escape league play with the 16 wins needed to lock in postseason possibilities. The team, certainly, wants more. And that's feasible. All of this, the hustle, effort and simple basics, come down perhaps more to one idea than any other: Heart. Play with it, and showcase some fight, and there's a chance. Play without it, and a second straight year sans postseason is a lock.
"We're a game away from second place; that's crazy motivation right there," three-guard Terry Henderson said. "This league is wide open. The top teams are losing left and right. If that's not motivation, I don't know what is."
"We gotta go beat Oklahoma State," Harris added, "because we owe them one."