It's a given the No. 7 Mountaineers (18-4, 6-3 Big 12) have done a myriad of things well. WVU leads the league in scoring offense and scoring margin at 87.6 points per game and a plus-21.9 differential. It is also tops in assists, steals and offensive rebounds, and third in scoring defense, holding foes to just 65.8 points per game. Add in a top half standing in a handful of other categories as well - including field goal percentage and three-point defense - and its little wonder the team sits squarely in third place, a full game (and tiebreaker) over Iowa State, and one game back of second-place Baylor.
But the most difficult part of the schedule begins now, when opponents have seen West Virginia's personality and personnel, and have a full 40 minutes of work and film on the press. The second time around typically produces tighter games, and as the regular season pushes into its final four weeks, teams begin to jostle more rigorously for postseason position and seeding. Head coach Bob Huggins has seen the scenario play out time and again, and its one he expects when WVU plays host to Oklahoma State (14-8, 3-6) in the second series game of the season on Saturday.
"I'd say it is harder because not only are the coaches familiar with what the other one really wants to do, but the players understand a little bit better," Huggins said. "This is a young league, lot of young guys, and so now they have been through it one time."
So what's the answer when opposing teams start to come up with their own? If you're West Virginia, you don't change much. The Mountaineers have had far too much success to mess with the formula now. But its fair to expect a wrinkle or two on both ends of the floor, just enough to keep foes in check and unable to lock in on sets.
"I think you look real hard at what worked and what didn't work and know full well that people are going to prepare for the things that did work," Huggins said. "Change defenses, maybe. Make some changes in your offense that you think will take advantage of a thing here or there."
The biggest goal for West Virginia, which had nearly four full days between the last contest, a road victory at Iowa State, and the home match-up with the Cowboys, was to examine film of itself and tidy the fundamental aspects of play that were lacking. Little things like footwork, proper block outs, angles on rotations and more. Within the offense, perhaps a look at cuts off screens, spacing within the offense, etc.
"We'd like to have won a few more than what we did," Huggins said. "We have got to clean some fundamental things up. As you go through the conference and you get concerned with preparing for what other people are throwing at you, it is hard to continue to hit fundamental things that really make a difference and make things work. We have to clean some things up."
Especially with an Oklahoma State squad that has played its best basketball during a four-game wining streak that includes the first victory at Bedlam rival Oklahoma in 12 seasons. After allowing a average of more than 85 points per game in a six-game losing streak, the Cowboys have held their last four foes to just 69 points per game, with no team managing more than 76. Head coach Brad Underwood's invigorated defense has allowed OSU to win the four games by an average of more than 15 points per game, including a 19-point blowout at Texas Tech and an impressive 99-71 pasting of Arkansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge that helped the league salvage a split.
OSU has cleaned up everything from help side defense to proper angles on traps and passing lanes to ceasing the ball watching that was leaving foes open for three-pointers. The Pokes are stopping transition points, cutting off straight line drives and collapsing well while still being able to close out on shooters off the drive and kick. It makes for a major challenge on Saturday in a game many pundits could see as a potential blowout based upon the first series contest.
"They have changed a lot defensively," Huggins said. "They are still running offensively what they ran before, but I think they are running it better and with a few more wrinkles. Defensively they have changed a lot."
Still, if the Mountaineers can polish the areas of their game that had become, eh, a bit tarnished in the midst of the January doldrums and losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State, they're clearly the superior side. Huggins was asked what, if anything, he was pleased about through the first half of the Big 12 schedule.
"Defensively, for the most part, and we have gotten better in the half court offense," Huggins said. "We are a much better half court offensive team than what we were at the beginning of the conference season."