Some might argue that in college basketball, there is no such thing as a must-win game during the first week of January. But that is precisely what Sunday's decisive victory over Marquette was. And because of it, the Mountaineers are now back on track in the Big East.
For the first time all season, Bob Huggins and the men's basketball team were given a bit of a reality check with back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Both teams, likely NCAA bound at season's end, attacked West Virginia's only glaring weakness, that being an overall lack of size and strength on the interior. It's not as if that blueprint was any big revelation; far from it, in fact.
Yet as the Mountaineers fell from 10-1 to 10-3 in a span of five days with games against the likes of Marquette, Louisville, and Syracuse fast approaching, one had to wonder if the brief two-game losing streak would end at that, or spiral out of control into something far worse for West Virginia, ultimately costing it any chance of having its name called on Selection Sunday come March.
Particularly troubling was the manner in which West Virginia fell at Notre Dame. The Mountaineers came out flat, and were never really in the game as Irish forward Luke Harangody bullied his way in the post to a career night.
"Last game we got kind of physically dominated because we didn't come out with energy," said forward Da'Sean Butler, who admittedly did not have one of his better games in South Bend.
"Notre Dame was bad not just because it was a loss, but because we didn't show up with any energy to play," added fellow starter Joe Alexander. "It's important to show up with energy, especially when you practice as hard as we do."
On paper, West Virginia was just 0-1 in conference play following the Notre Dame loss, but with two consecutive losses and the aforementioned gauntlet on the horizon, Sunday's game against No. 10 Marquette suddenly took on added significance. Not just from a win-loss standpoint, but also from an effort and energy standpoint as noted by the players.
Needless to say, the Mountaineers found that energy from start to finish on Sunday afternoon. Part of it could have been due to a boisterous Coliseum crowd of more than 11,000, but the hunch here is that a lot of it can be chalked up to pride as well. From day one under Huggins, Mountaineer basketball has taken on a renewed sense of passion and intensity any time the team sets foot on the court.
West Virginia knows that it is a much better team than it showed late in the loss to Oklahoma, when mental errors ultimately did in the Mountaineers. It knows that Thursday's loss to the Fighting Irish should be the exception, not the rule, as far as effort and energy are concerned. And, with the landmark win over Marquette, it also knows that on any given day, the Mountaineers can play with and beat anybody in the country.
It is this latter point that the Mountaineers can likely take the most from. Prior to Sunday, all three of West Virginia's losses came to the most talented teams to date on the schedule. And ever since an early December throttling of Auburn in the SEC-Big East Invitational, the level of play from the Mountaineers had steadily declined, though the winning continued. Junior guard Alex Ruoff admitted as much on Sunday.
Against the Golden Eagles, the Mountaineers not only matched Marquette's intensity, but also its physicality, particularly in the second half when West Virginia allowed just five Marquette rebounds in pulling away with the victory. In a typical Big East game of bumps, bruises, and bodies on the floor, the Mountaineers dished out as much as they took, with the smallest player on the court lowering his head and leading the way.
"We stressed during practice all week that we needed to be physical with them, and match their physicality," Alexander said. "A huge part of it was Joe Mazzulla. He came in and was physical, and the rest of us just kind of fell into place."
Now, with the win under its belt and the monkey off of the back, West Virginia can move on in Big East play knowing that night in and night out it can win against the conference's best.
"We're just going to come out hard like we did (against the Golden Eagles), and learn from what we did against Notre Dame which is that we have to come out with energy," Alexander noted. "We'll learn from what we did (Sunday) too that we can beat anybody.
"It's terrible to start off 0-2 in conference because you feel like you have a lot of losing ahead of you," he continued. "Even though we started off with a loss, to come out (Sunday) and beat Marquette kind of evens things out."
And in the process, gives the Mountaineers a sorely needed win over a reputable opponent with a gut check to boot.