The Mountaineers showed as much in the 82-75 loss to Oklahoma State, running through a myriad of mental and physical mistakes that ultimately cost it a major opportunity to gain ground on Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12 race. As it turned out, all of the league's top three teams lost at home - with West Virginia likely giving away its chance to win the regular season title.
The whys are obvious. WVU failed, as it has done a handful of times this season, to give substantial effort. And with the way the Mountaineers play, that leads to a host of other issues. The Mountaineers chose not to attack OSU's pack line defense, instead settling for a season-high 33 three-pointers in 54 shots (61.1 percent) while being beaten 32-22 in points in the paint. They failed to cut off drives. They were outrebounded and allowed OSU a steady parade to the foul line.
"I feel like at points we got way from (what we do). We shot 33 threes today and that's not us," Elijah Macon said. "We are not a shooting team. We are a team that likes to get physical, get in the paint. When I heard we shot 33 threes I was disappointed because that's not us."
Most glaringly, like every of the other five defeats, West Virginia didn't win the 50-50 balls. That, in itself, is arguably the biggest measure of whether the Mountaineers have chosen to play with effort on a given night. If WVU is hustling, running people down and forcing turnovers from behind, and scrapping for the 50-50 balls, there's an excellent chance it will win. If it's not, as in this game, the odds go in the opposite direction in a landslide. Among the examples today? Lamont West had an excellent chance at an offensive rebound late, the ball falling to the floor with OSU guard Phil Forte on his outside hip. West held superior position, was just a few steps from the ball, and offered a half speed reach for it. Forte, from behind, beat West to the ball, securing it and then getting fouled, where he headed to the line and made two to extend the Cowboys' lead. It's about desire, plain and simple.
Other examples? Oklahoma State pounded WVU on the boards, tallying 30 to the Mountaineers' 15. OSU also shot 12 more free throws, converting 24 of 27 overall. Why? Because West Virginia refused to drive the ball, to try and get higher percentage shots while drawing contact. Instead, they jacked up a season-high in threes, managing to make just 6 of 20 in the second half. Allowing for the three offensive rebounds in the second half, that's at least 11 empty trips, and it played exactly into the plan of Brad Underwood and his newfound pack line defense.
"They tried to pack it in and make us shoot, and we did when we shouldn't have," forward Nate Adrian said. "We should have taken the ball to the basket more. We weren't attacking. It's just effort. There's not much you can say about it. It's all just effort. There's not really an option. You have to come every day. They played hard. Coach Underwood had a game plan and they came in and executed and played well."
The lack of gumption to test OSU on the interior also allowed defenders to challenge the shots. Without the drives, there was very little penetrate-and-kick from the Mountaineer offense. West Virginia also never consistently forced Oklahoma State's defense to shift, which would create lanes to the bucket. That, in turn, allows for driving, which forces defenders to help side defense, which opens passing options on the interior, and typically far better shot selections. WVU had none of that, instead passing the ball around the perimeter for 20 seconds before taking a three. When West was hitting, as he did in making 5-of-7 in the first half, it was fine. When that hot hand cooled and wasn't replaced, it caused West Virginia to make the exact same number of threes in the second half while needing seven more shots to do so.
"When it comes to the game, it's a whole other speed and you have to be ready to go just like that," Macon said. "I feel like sometimes, at certain points in the game, there were people who got tired. They didn't have that extra step that's needed to turn guys over and then to get to the rim. We didn't get to the rim today. We shot too many shots. We didn't collapse on defense or rotate. It's something we have to get in the gym and work on."
WVU also had just nine defensive rebounds compared to Oklahoma State's eight on offense, too few even against a team that shot a sizzling 62.5 percent in missing just 15 shots all game. There cannot be a nearly 50-50 split in boards off the opposing glass if WVU expects to win.
"I feel like we have a few people who don't want to come and rebound," Macon said. "People like to leak out. Since the Kansas State game Huggs has been telling us you have to have the rebound before you leave. You can't just leave. You'll already be on the other side of the court and they have the ball again. We have to work on that rebounding and continue to work on it."
All true, or course. Portions of it were technique or positioning. But like much of the above, the majority of it was nothing more than old fashioned effort. Effort in slowing OSU before it managed to put pressure on the rim. Effort to put a body on a body and challenge for rebounds. Effort in searching for quality looks, not settling for the barrage of threes taken. When West Virginia has lost, it has been as much about the battle against itself than any match-up with the opposition. And until that box is checked off every game, the "upsets" will continue.