After winning 14 of their first 15 games this season, the Mountaineers are off to their best start up to this point in a season since the 1981-82 season, and even though they haven’t played their best through their first two Big 12 Conference games of the season, the Mountaineers are 2-0 in league play with two hard-fought victories away from home under their belt.
West Virginia has been able to get out to this start by playing relentless defense and beating teams by controlling the tempo for all 40 minutes. For the most part, WVU has made its opponents play the way it wants them to.
As a result, the Mountaineers are playing better than they have played since getting into the Big 12. And as they prepare to hit a stretch of three consecutive games against top-20 teams, they are as confident as they have been in a long time.
“With this team, so many of us play with that rhythm, and if we’re on, all we need to do is see that ball go through a couple times and you can see us start to get rolling,” said senior point guard Juwan Staten. “That makes us more energetic on defense, which has gotten us more points all year.”
The Mountaineers have already surpassed their season win total from two years ago when they were in their first time through a season in the Big 12 and they’re ranked in the top 15 for the first time since March 2010 – right after Huggins’ team won the Big East Conference tournament and was primed to make a Final Four run as the nation’s No. 6 team.
That’s a big contrast to last season when WVU had already lost five of its first 15 games and thanks to losses like a road loss to Virginia Tech in which it led by as many as 17 points in the second half and a loss to Missouri in which the Mountaineers trailed by a bunch most of the game before making it a game toward the end, they were already starting to doubt themselves. That doubt and the struggles that followed in Big 12 play led to a promising season ending with a first-round loss in the NIT.
“Last year, we went into Big 12 play not really feeling as good about ourselves as we would have liked to,” said sophomore forward Nathan Adrian. “You look at it this year and we have one loss and we’re ranked, it’s hard to not feel good. That confidence in the team and what we’re doing can take you a long way.”
But how does this team do that? How will the Mountaineers be able to keep in the right direction and continue on the path they have been able to start on that has them looking like one of the conference’s best teams.
“Playing hard and being scrappy, and just doing the little things this team has been doing,” said sophomore forward Devin Williams. “(In Big 12 play), it’s all about what team is doing what makes them successful the best. That’s all we can keep doing is what has made us successful this year, and that’s playing hard, giving energy, rebounding the ball and playing together.
“That’s us, that’s our identity. That’s how we get things done. We leave it all out there for our fans and the state. When we play together and run our stuff, we can be pretty hard to beat.”
If there is anything this start has done for West Virginia, it has given them a taste of success – and they’re hungry for more of it.
It knows it will be tested in these next few weeks, and if the Mountaineers want to be the team they believe they can be, they will have to prove themselves in what is arguably the deepest and most difficult conference in all of college basketball.
“We’re definitely playing better, we’re going into this feeling so much better and with a lot of confidence,” Staten said. “But we try not to think about that other stuff, we try to stay grounded and we have a coach that isn’t going to let us get complacent at all. We just try to keep working and trying to get to our ultimate goal.”