The first, and most obvious for the Mountaineers, is the ability to refocus after the overtime loss at No. 3 Kansas on Monday. WVU led by 14 points inside 2:45 remaining before a 21-7 closing push by the Jayhawks evened the score at 71-71 before KU would go on to the 84-80 win. Head coach Bob Huggins was well aware of the psychological damage inflicted - along with the four-plus days before the next game - and chose to give the team Tuesday and Wednesday off. The purpose was actually twofold. First, it enabled the team to individually process the defeat and begin to move past it and hone in on the Red Raiders. It also allowed the Mountaineers rare additional rest time as the season enters its final stretch before the Big 12 Tournament.
"I'm not sure I could if I tried," Huggins said of trying to get the team to forget about the Kansas loss. "We have had two days off so I kinda wanted them to take two days and retool themselves for the stretch run here. At times they are not as resilient as what they should be. Most of the time they are. We don't go near as long (in practice late in the year) and we watch a lot more film, so I just gave them two days off. I don't give them two days off early."
In previous defeats, like those to Oklahoma and Kansas State, Huggins had said he wanted his team to remember, that he hoped the losses "stuck in their craw." But this was a different level, one that stung to the core and required time. WVU was actually fortunate in that the game was played on Monday, and thus had the maximum recovery time within the realm of conference play. That didn't make it any easier overall, perhaps, but it gave a chance for the shock to wean a bit and attention to turn to Texas Tech. And therein lies the second challenge. The Raiders (17-9, 5-8) are literally playing as well as any team in the league right now, and are just nine points from a six-game winning streak.
As it is, Tech enters having split its last half dozen games, the highlight an 84-78 home win over No. 4 Baylor on Monday. The Raiders also defeated LSU and Oklahoma in the stretch, while losing at Texas (62-58), at TCU (62-61) and versus Kansas (80-79). The level of play has increased substantially from earlier in the season, as first year head coach Chris Beard begins to gain traction. The Raiders are running offensive much more efficiently over the second half of the Big 12 slate and have tightened their man defense in limiting foes to an average of 68 points per game over the last six outings.
Beard, an associate head coach under Bob Knight during his stint as Texas Tech, also has the Raiders pounding the offensive glass and finding excellent shots playing inside out. It was that style that beat West Virginia 77-76 in overtime in the initial series meeting in Lubbock when Anthony Livingston buried a late three that was the difference. Tech bested WVU 32-29 in rebounds, including a 12-8 advantage on the offensive end. The Raiders also committed one fewer turnover (14-13) while shooting 51 percent from the floor. With three players in double figures and three more averaging at least 8.4 points per game in a line-up which distributes minutes evenly, WVU faces another improving team again needing a win a home for a season split. Still, Tech is just 1-6 in true road games, and if West Virginia can overcome its emotions and focus on itself, it can begin to reverse the roller coaster of momentum.
"I think they and Oklahoma State are playing as well as anybody in the league," Huggins said. "They are on a heck of a roll here and they run good offense. They run coach Knight's motion offense a lot and the play really hard and very physical. They play the game the right way."