The first few minutes of West Virginia's last two games were very similar from the opponents' perspective, but the responses from WVU were as different as they could be. The Mountaineers simply weren't ready, or able, to respond to Villanova's charge, but they stood toe to toe with Providence and didn't back down in the face of enough bumping and grinding to fill a burlesque show.
"This was a perfect example of how you learn from losses," Joe Alexander said following the win over the Friars. "Villanova was physical with us and took us out of our stuff. Coach Huggs just told us when they are physical off the bat, don't let them take you out of our stuff, and we were able to apply that. It was exactly like the Villanova game, but the difference is we were able to respond to that."
True enough, but is there a reason that two games, just three days apart, played out in wildly divergent fashion for WVU? Is it just a matter of education for Huggins' still learning troops? Alex Ruoff saw a bit of a different angle.
"Both teams needed this win," he said of the latter game. "They needed it to make the Big East tournament, and we did to make the NCAA tournament. "We both were desperate. You kind of saw that in the early going."
Ruoff also absolved his coach of any blame for the Villanova loss.
"It wasn't his (Huggs) fault," he said of Huggins' blame-shouldering statements after the Wildcat encounter. "Villanova came out aggressive and we weren't ready for it. It was a hostile environment and some of our younger guys backed down, myself included. Tonight we were ready for it."
So, did the road vs. home factor play a part? Just like shooting, can being in the home venue affect the way a team responds to challenges?
"Guys are always going to be more confident at home when you have people cheering for you," Ruoff noted. "That plays into it, but the road games are the ones you have to get. We have to play desperate. We know we have to win to build a resume for the tournament, so we have to give it everything. I think you saw that in our defense [against Providence]."
It becomes apparent, after getting the opinions of several players, that there is not one reason, or even one that everyone agrees upon, for West Virginia's two very different results in its last two contests. It's difficult to draw parallels between the two games, or make predictions for future ones, based on these results. Have the Mountaineers learned a lesson that they can apply down the stretch, or was it simply the vagaries of fate?
Whatever the reasons, there's no doubt that WVU has left itself next to no wiggle room for making the NCAAs. Some pundits and publications aren't even mentioning the Mountaineers as a bubble team at this point, and while that's probably a bit overwrought, the smart money says that WVU needs at least four, and probably five, more wins to secure a spot. And to do that, it can't afford to fold up in the early going in any more games.
"It's just us being ready to play," Wellington Smith summed up. "Even if a game is at eight o'clock in the morning, we have to come out intense. There are some days where some people aren't going to be ready to play. Some people might be tired. But it's basically a job for us. We're getting scholarships for it. You have to go out and play hard at all times. If you don't come out and pay, you are going to get thrashed like we did against Villanova."
The words, of course, have been heard before. Can the Mountaineers put them into action, and win on the road against teams that also have something to play for? And more importantly, have they learned the lessons that Alexander speaks of? It won't take long to find out.