Twenty-three games into the season, West Virginia has five losses. All have have been to unranked foes, none of which are locks to make the NCAA Tournament. There are a couple on the bubble, but the commonality among all of them is that the Mountaineers were favored to win, and clearly didn't do whatever was needed to “get up” for those games.
Motivation is a nebulous item that's difficult to quantify, and even tougher to draw out of others. Speeches, time on the treadmill and benching are all tools used by WVU's coaching staff to make sure players understand what's at stake. With this year's team, though, nothing seems to work – at least for those “should win” contests. Whether that's the fault of the coaches or the players is another topic that can be debated, but the point here is that West Virginia shows no inclination of being able to fix this issue. Once or twice, coming out “flat” is at least understandable, if not acceptable. However, the Oklahoma State fiasco marks at leas four times that the Mountaineers have woefully underestimated their opponents, not prepared with sufficient attention, or thought the game was won while time still remained on the clock.
No team is ever going to be perfect in this regard. Dry spells during games are going to happen. Opponents are going to get hot in shooting the ball. Bounces won't go WVU's way every time. However, this play has become a disturbing trend for the Mountaineer team, and one that shows no signs of stopping.
That doesn't mean, of course, that the coaches will stop trying. Head coach Bob Huggins used his post game interviews, as he often does, to deliver a pointed message in this regard, saying in no uncertain terms that the excuses being offered by his team could be used to fertilize local agricultural fields. Whether that message will ever get internalized, though, is another question entirely. It certainly hasn't happened so far, and with just eight regular season games remaining, is there any reason to think that it will resonate now?
Looking to the players for answers is even more frustrating than the play on the court. Numerous variations of “we didn't prepare right”, or “we have to stop doing this” have been routinely heard, but they are really just programmed responses that don't illuminate anything. It's certainly understandable that players are frustrated with having to answer these same queries time and again, but the point of the season has been reached where they are just repeating themselves, or repeating catchphrases over and over. (In a way, it's just like the repetition of some of these lackluster efforts.) Questions about potential fixes are almost uniformly met with comments about getting back to practice, focusing on fundamentals, and paying attention to details. Again, all things you want to hear, but not backed with any consistent improvement.
What makes this doubly frustrating is the fact that this is a very talented team. Sure, it has a few gaps, but that's true of every team in the country. The biggest upside this team has is the fact that when it plays hard, pays attention and doesn't coast, it can win any game it plays. There are many teams that don't have the talent to win consistently, no matter how hard they play, but WVU isn't one of them. When it competes hard for the ball on the boards and in loose ball situations, when it executes at least some of the game plan and is engaged, it's usually going to win. When it doesn't, it will probably lose.
Last March, after the loss to Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, players admitted they didn't take the Lumberjacks seriously, that their preparation was bad, and that it would serve as a motivating factor for the 2016-2017 season. Has that lesson sunk in yet, even with the several repeats that have been seen in this year's games? It would appear not. And if it hasn't by now, how many more losses will it take to do so?
The answer to those questions are as difficult to determine the lack of motivation and effort which plagues West Virginia in games that it views as “not big”. Asking the players for answers is a dead end. Huggins is mystified, as he's routinely noted that he can't understand how players aren't prepared or motivated with so much on the line. The hard truth is this – if WVU can't come up with those answers quickly, it's going to be the defining characteristic of this team.