That's been the story of the nonconference slate for No. 11 West Virginia, which won a dozen of its first 13 games - including the last five by an average of more than 40 points. Of the last handful of foes, Northern Kentucky figured be the biggest challenge, the Norse entering having won six in a row and nine of 12 overall. And it played out that way in a lackadaisical first half in which the Mountaineers were outrebounded and missed eight of nine three-pointers.
But as the game wore on, the cumulative effect and a major dose of effort and execution took the typical toll on the opponent, and West Virginia was able to steadily pull away for the 92-61 win. So what, exactly, were the takeaways from this contest? Apart from the slower start, the game played out exactly as the majority of the others against inferior foes. Turnovers, steals, extra shots and valuing the ball and possessions were on full display in the latest of romps. The Mountaineers registered the typical stat box dominance, besting the Norse in field goal percentage and free throws, as well as assists, steals and turnovers.
"We didn't play very well in the first half, and I think they were a lot better than our guys thought they were," head coach Bob Huggins said. "In the second half we did a better job. We have to get our guys to understand numbers. We were creating numbers in their favor. We have to create numbers in our favor. We have to do a better job guarding the ball. We gotta stop committing unforced errors. We have to do a lot of things better."
And that's the challenge. Truthfully, West Virginia has largely been playing against itself ever since it left Charlottesville with the victory over then-No. 6 Virginia. The latter three weeks have been about padding wins and bettering the bench, with a nod to also polishing a few aspects of the game. But WVU's will hasn't been tested, it's fortitude measured by any more than three legit tests over the first 13 games. It's difficult to one to truly get better when not playing comparable competition. Northern Kentucky was an upgrade from Western Carolina and UMKC, but nowhere near what the Mountaineers face even in practices. Even with a sluggish first half, the game was never really in doubt.
WVU forced 12 first half turnovers, resulting in 11 points, but led just 36-29 after missing eight of nine three-point attempts and shooting just 42.4 percent overall and getting outrebounded. Northern Kentucky handled the pressure effectively and was able to create open looks in the lane, nearly matching the Mountaineers with 18 points in the paint to WVU's 22. The Norse attacked West Virginia exactly as had been desired, and yet the inevitable still came, as a 5-0 run to close the half segued into scoring 12 of the first 14 points of the latter period. The 17-2 push signaled the beginning of the end for the NKU, especially after head coach John Brannen was hit with a technical with 16:37 left and Nathan Adrian hit the two resulting free throws to end the run with West Virginia leading 48-31.
From there it was another coast job, with four players in double figures and three others within a point or two of such. West Virginia forced 25 turnovers, almost right on its season average of 24.2 per game, and scored 31 points off them. The question, as it always has been over the last few weeks, are the tests to come, and this idea of the sustainability of it all as Big 12 play begins at Oklahoma State on Dec. 30.
"We have to continue to get better," said Tarik Phillip, who finished with a game-high 16 points. "This is a tough road we have ahead of us with the 19 games we have to play. Every night we are going to have to bring it. That's the main thing. You gotta come in with your 'A' game every game. Everybody has to come ready to play, one through 14."
If West Virginia can, indeed, do that there's little reason it won't challenge for the second spot in which it was selected in the preseason. But there will be few 20-point wins, let alone the 40-point romps of the last month. And West Virginia has to welcome that idea from a competitor's perspective.
"We can't do that anymore," forward Brandon Watkins said of the slow stretches that have lulled the Mountaineers play at times. "We do that and we're down 10, not up by whatever we were up by today. We have to stay focused. The freshmen are really going to realize that we aren't playing the same teams we have been playing. Every night it's going to be a ground-it-out game. We all have to be on the same page and understanding what we have to do to win."