So it reasons that the league might well be the one that provides the most challenges, and the rewards for such, while also offering potential for the biggest of letdowns. Recently, West Virginia experienced both, getting imperative road wins over TCU and Texas Tech (two of the three now unranked Big 12 teams) before a home loss to Iowa State, currently rated 11th. That defeat, much like the lone other one against LSU, came facing a quality foe on a return home after some impressive road wins, just when the Mountaineers might have begun to believe they could not extend full effort and still gain victories.
There were other issues, obviously, and head coach Bob Huggins covered them thoroughly: lack of making critical, timely shots, lack of passing, lack of rebounding. But at least two of those go back to the primary aspect senior leader Juwan Staten noted was the most troubling following the Cyclones’ 74-72 win.
“We talk about playing hard and being engaged for 40 minutes, and I think we weren’t engaged for the whole 40 minutes,” Staten said. “This is a team that we definitely have to play hard and stay engaged. We got a little bit lax at times and didn’t execute and that’s when it hurt.”
Which was the same culprit in the oh-so-similar 74-73 loss to LSU, when West Virginia failed to challenge a late drive to the basket and, after leading by 14 in the second half, saw the lead dismantled at least partially by lack of effort on some possessions. And in a conference as good as the Big 12, and there’s reason to believe it might be the most difficult in the nation, a handful of possessions here or there will undoubtedly swing games, as the talent levels aren’t that widely varying.
Of now, a whopping seven Big 12 teams are among the top 25 of the latest AP rankings just three weeks. No other league has more than four. The Big 12 non-conference winning percentage (.825) is the best by any league since the 2004-05 season and only the second time that any conference has been over .800. And Big 12 men’s basketball has the nation’s best non-conference record (104-22) and is the only conference in the nation that is at .800 or better this season. And, arguably most impressive, the Big 12 has a .500 or better record against every conference it has faced this season (29 total).
“That’s the league,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said. “We’ve talked to our guys from the beginning that we are going to have 18 really hard fought contests and every one is independent from the other. If you don’t play well, as well as you want to, you are probably going to lose.”
Which is exactly what happened to the Sooners (11-4, 2-1), who ripped Texas 70-49 on the road in among the more impressive transition and fast break offensive performances of the season before losing in overtime at home to an unranked Kansas State team by three.
“That’s something that if your team is mature enough and advanced enough, they will handle that better than we did,” Kruger said. “That’s kind of the first time we have been in that situation and we didn’t handle it the way we wanted to. Kansas State certain had something to do with that. But we didn’t handle (success) well.”
The loss left Oklahoma in a four-way tie with West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State for third in the league. Kansas and Iowa State are 2-0, though the Mountaineers have the best overall record at 14-2. After it plays host to Oklahoma, WVU must go on the road to Texas this Saturday before having an entire week prior to the Jan. 24 home game with TCU. Thus, looking at this brief stretch, the Oklahoma game would seem to have major implications in terms of getting off to a solid 5-1 or 4-2 start, or to be hovering around .500 – or worse – in Big 12 play heading into the final week of January.
“We need to win Tuesday,” Huggins said. ““We lost a hard game to Oklahoma State here last year, then we lost to Texas after that. We just can’t squander opportunities. We have to get better. When you don’t shoot it very well, which we don’t, you have to compensate in other ways. Game slippage happens when you’re unprepared. That’s what happens.”