It wasn't just that the No. 9 Mountaineers truly controlled nearly every aspect of play from the tip as WVU tallied advantages in rebounding, points off turnovers, assists, second-chance points and bench points. It was that West Virginia played exponentially better in its press than it did the first time against K-State, often trapping the Wildcats effectively and not allowing Bruce Weber's team to again take the Mountaineers out of their comfort zone in terms of pressure.
In the first series meeting, West Virginia backed out of the press and utilized mainly halfcourt defense. After a handful of adjustments in practice, there would be no such repeat this time. And that shows that the Mountaineers are able to learn and adjust, a key as WVU begins to get into the midway point of the conference slate, and sees teams for a second time this season. Weber and Kansas State came in thinking they might have a chance. They left with no such illusions.
"There's not much I can say," Weber said. "We just didn't play very well. Part of that is them forcing us to go fast. We didn't react very well. I think a big stat is not only the turnovers, but the lack of assists. We needed to share the basketball and be more patient at times. When you go 1-for-18 from the three point line, that doesn’t help your cause either. I think a lot of it was they had us rattled and going too fast. We kept talking about having an ugly game and keeping it close to find a way to win, but they just made too many plays."
It was, in every meaningful way, a demoralizing defeat for Kansas State and a significant boon to the home team. The win was WVU's sixth in its first eight conference games and gave the Mountaineers the regular season series sweep in their first available opportunity. It also allowed West Virginia to keep pace with a surging top half of the Big 12; No. 1 Oklahoma knocked off Texas Tech on Tuesday to pull even at 6-2 while No. 17 Baylor can reach the mark when it hosts Oklahoma State on Wednesday.
The 15-point blowout is the kind of solid, message-sending home court win the program needed after the recent defeat against Texas. After that 56-49 setback in which WVU showed little bounce and even less enthusiasm and focus - it shot 14.3 percent from three-point range and set a school record with the worst free throw percentage in a game in which it shot at least 20 - the Mountaineers were a bit better in the come-from-behind win at Texas Tech. Then, versus K-State, both the crowd and the team seemed into the contest from the tip. While the crowd was spurred by a couple early technicals, one on the bench and one on Tarik Phillip, the team showcased better attention to detail and the ability to overcome another sub-par performance by Devin Williams.
The preseason All-Big 12 honoree finished with just six points and two rebounds with six turnovers and four personal fouls that limited him to 20 minutes - only his third-lowest total in the as four games. But Williams was offset by double digits from Jonathan Holton, Jaysean Paige and Nathan Adrian, who got his first start of the season in place of the injured Esa Ahmad, who is nursing a knee sprain. And while head coach Bob Huggins said he hopes Ahmad can return by Thursday, it might not matter as the Mountaineers are consistently getting help from a variety of sources.
Adrian settled immediately, scoring West Virginia's first five points, while Paige overcame a poor shooting performance (3-for-12, 1-for-5 3pt.) by remaining active with four steals, five rebounds while converting 5-of-6 from the line. Adrian finished with a season-high 10 points, the most he has scored in 39 games, and Holton was exceptional on the interior, filling up the stat sheet with 14 points and 11 rebounds while continuing to hound the opposition within the press.
"I thought Nate had the best game of his career, Huggins said. "He passed the ball. He kept the ball moving. His passes were good. Defensively, he was really good. He made some shots, but I think his floor game was very good."
Junior college transfer Teyvon Myers came off the bench to sink a three-pointer and total a career-best seven points and Tarik Phillip played his usual steady-but-explosive game to score nine points with three assists, though he did have four of WVU's 18 turnovers. The miscues were the one glaring issue, as West Virginia had just one fewer turnover than its opponent for the second straight game; over the last three, the Mountaineers have actually committed more turnovers (45) than they have forced (44).
"We continued to shoot ourselves in the foot by turning the ball over," Huggins said. "We work like crazy to create turnovers, and then we turn around and give the ball right back to him. I have done this a long time and seen a lot of basketball. I have never seen guards go down the court and forget to take the ball out. We have done that the last three games. I don’t know how it happens.
"Fundamentally, we weren’t very good (at KSU) with our pressure. We talked about that and showed them on the film. We tried to clean that up and I think the positive of today is that we had more bounce in our step again. We have been a half-step behind on everything. We ran balls from behind again. We made plays from behind that we haven’t been making. We had that bounce that is kind of critical for the way we play."
It added to a significant win, and a key defense of the home floor after the Texas misstep. Though Huggins would never admit it, the Mountaineers are likely right where they were expected to be, if not far better, in the preseason. West Virginia knocked off then-No. 1 Kansas at home on Jan. 12, then at least partially negated the win with the loss to Texas. On average, that's holding serve. And at 17-3 at the 20-game mark, the Mountaineers are exactly where even the most positive, emboldened of fans imagined.
A look ahead reveals how truly imperative the victories over Tech and K-State were. WVU plays a solid-not-spectacular Florida team - the Gators are 13-6 overall - on the road on Saturday as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, then must run the gauntlet of Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas, with the first and last of those away from the Coliseum. At worst, an ideal set-up would be to split those games while a 1-3 finish might be slightly disappointing, which shows how good this team is viewed to be. A 3-1 or better record, and West Virginia is in position to challenge for the Big 12 regular season championship with seven games left.
That would never have been the case without winning when it was supposed to versus Texas Tech and Kansas State, especially after the UT loss. But that's what good teams do - win when it's expected the vast majority of the time. It's becoming apparent that the Mountaineers are good. The question to be answered is if they're great.