If that sounds like the same formula the No. 14 Mountaineers have used all season, that's because it is. At 21-7 overall and 10-5 in the Big 12, WVU is currently projected as a three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament and, of now, would claim the third-seed in the conference tournament and face sixth-place Iowa State on the second day, after the 8-9 and 7-10 games open the league's postseason on March 9.
"I think I know what our guys are thinking," head coach Bob Huggins said. "They know what they are playing for. We had a very good practice (Thursday). They were in great spirits and really enthusiastic. They are playing for a better seed than what we have had in the conference tournament and they are playing for an NCAA seed. I have tried to explain to them the advantages there are to being seeded higher. You get seeded higher for a reason."
Wins over the final three regular season games, which is certainly possible against OSU, Texas Tech and Baylor, would assure West Virginia the third spot in the final regular season standings, and likely set-up a manageable postseason in both tournaments. Of course, as Huggins often points out, teams can't win three games until they win one, and right now the Mountaineers are facing a downtrodden Oklahoma State team beset by injuries.
The Cowboys (12-16, 3-12) have lost three guards, with a fourth, Jeffery Carroll, questionable for Saturday with an illness. Carroll has started 20 of 27 games, averaging 8.6 points and 4.3 rebounds. Arguably OSU's best three-point threat (39-for-13, 34.5%), Carroll is currently listed behind Jeff Newberry (11.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Tavarius Shine (5.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) after not playing in the last game against Oklahoma.
If Carroll can't play, it adds to an epidemic of injuries for head coach Travis Ford, who lost point guard Phil Forte to a torn elbow ligament and backcourt mate Davon Dillard to suspension during the nonconference slate. Another guard, Jawun Evans, was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury on Feb. 7. Forte's absence has been filled by sophomore Tyree Griffin, who averages 4.8 points and 3.7 assists, has started 12 games this season but didn't play against WVU in the Mountaineers' 77-50 home win on Jan. 9.
The loss of four guards, two in the last three weeks, has forced Ford into shuffling the line-up. Seven Cowboy guards have started games this season, and the lack of continuity has hurt Oklahoma State, losers of six of seven and 12 of the last 15.
"I did watch Texas Tech and Oklahoma State," Huggins said. "Travis doesn't have a whole lot of guys, and they got in foul trouble. He doesn't have a very deep bench. (It hurts when) you lose arguably the best pair of guards in the league, if not the best then one of the best."
OSU's offense was running largely through Evans before the freshman injured the right shoulder in the 71-61 loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 20. Now, Ford has chosen to isolate Newberry, and the 6-2 senior has responded, hitting double figures in four straight games - including 19 points against both No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Oklahoma. Newberry hit a trio of threes against West Virginia in the first series match-up to score 12 points, and he is shooting a sizzling 9-of-17 from long range over the last two games.
"I think they are isoing him a lot more than what they did before," Huggins said. "I think the isos before were for Evans. (Newberry's) shooting has really improved. He is shooting the ball much better than what he was. He started at the end of last year to shoot the ball really well."
In addition to being cognizant of Newberry's position on the floor, WVU also needs to ensure it boxes out effectively and controls the boards. The Mountaineers were embarrassingly outrebounded by Oklahoma last Saturday, but were able, against an Iowa State team that also spread the floor, to rack up a 43-29 edge, including 18-8 on offense. Versus Oklahoma State's smaller, three-guard line-up - only one starter is taller than 6-7 - the Mountaineers must dominate that aspect, while also finishing opportunities created at the other end.
"We need to become more consistent in defensive rebounding and we have to start scoring in transition," Huggins said. "We have not been very good in transition. The most important thing to advance in the NCAA Tournament is you have to score."
Huggins added that West Virginia's focus, and its legs, have returned after the coaching staff gave the team Tuesday and Wednesday off following the Iowa State win Monday. Thursday's practice was crisp and spirited, and Huggins said he can feel the team beginning to hone in on postseason play.
"I'm sure that had a little to do with it," Huggins said of the off days contributing to the practice energy level. "The biggest thing is we are nearing the end. This is the time of year when seemingly everybody gets more excited. The fans and players get more excited. ... I think when you get into tournament play you're motivated. You shouldn't need much more motivation. If we are making shots at the right time I think we certainly can make a run."
Note: Huggins was also asked about how the return of Jonathan Holton has affected the play of Devin Williams.
"He had a great practice (on Thursday)," Huggins said. "He and Jon have played together now for two years, and I am sure (Holton's suspension) affected him. Jon keeps balls alive that Devin sometimes ends up with. I think people were concentrating more on stopping him after the Iowa State game in Ames. He got doubled more, and people were digging down on him more than what they were before. It's a lot harder with Jon around."