Crash and burn
MORGANTOWN - It was roughly the time that Monday night's BCS championship game was beginning in New Orleans that West Virginia's basketball game with No. 17 Connecticut was ending in Hartford.
Not from a clock standpoint, but from a practical one.
It was with 11 minutes to play and the Mountaineers ahead by 10 points that they simply crashed and burned. They were, in fact, not unlike LSU would turn out to be later that night - offensively inept.
Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins wasn't thinking about the football game after West Virginia's 64-57 loss to the Huskies at the XL Center, of course, but he still managed to stumble onto a rather apt comparison.
"If those guys were quarterbacks they'd be terrible quarterbacks,'' Huggins said of his own players. "They just look at the first option. They never look at options two and three. I suppose a lot of that is experience, but it's also having enough toughness to stay in what you're supposed to stay in.''
Indeed, once again after a WVU loss - the Mountaineers are now 12-5 overall and 3-2 in the Big East - the refrain was eerily familiar. While Huggins steadfastly refuses to use the youth of his team as an excuse for its shortcomings, those shortcomings tend always to seem the result of youthfulness.
At UConn, the problem was multifaceted. On one hand, the Huskies are pretty good - having won last year's national championship - and were playing in front of an ear-splitting crowd of more than 15,000. When they turned up the defensive pressure and began a 15-2 run that would erase that 10-point WVU lead, it was not entirely unexpected.
Then again, the Mountaineers didn't do much to try and stop UConn's momentum, either, and that's what bothered both Huggins and the handful of players who have been around him for a while now.
"I wouldn't say they got rattled, but they didn't know what was going on and didn't know how to handle that,'' senior forward Kevin Jones said, referring to the preponderance of freshmen on the team. "We were trying to calm them down and keep their focus. But we lost our focus.''
Perhaps West Virginia couldn't have done anything to stop Connecticut's run. The Huskies, after all, got a clutch performance from preseason All-America and NCAA tournament hero Jeremy Lamb (25 points) and big games from big men Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond. The freshman Drummond, in particular, was huge with 20 points, 11 rebounds and dunks that could fill most players' career highlight reels.
With WVU already undersized and 6-foot-8 Deniz Kilicli out of the game with foul trouble, perhaps it wasn't a fair fight. Jones might have been better served to fight it out inside (he had a season-low five rebounds and took a season-high eight 3-point attempts), but alone he would have been sorely overmatched by the huge Huskies.
Still, simply slowing things down and executing on offense would have helped the Mountaineers try to regain some of the lost control, but once again that didn't happen. Huggins, as he has done much of the season, blames it on trying to make plays off the dribble instead of passing and running offense.
"I think that's a lost art. Everybody wants to catch the ball and, as an assistant of mine used to say, kill ants,'' Huggins said. "There wouldn't be a damn ant alive if they had any in here. We just dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and we never pass the ball.''
Indeed, during UConn's decisive 15-2 run, here were six of WVU's seven possessions: awkward missed drives to the basket by Bryant and freshman Gary Browne (Browne's with the shot clock dwindling), a turnover on Kilicli's offensive foul (his fourth personal), a successful driving layup by Jabarie Hinds, a backcourt turnover by Hinds (resulting in a Ryan Boatright's tying dunk) and a missed Bryant 3-pointer.
The only other possession the Mountaineers had in that series actually included two offensive rebounds, but ended in another turnover.
"Guys know that we have to settle down and run offense. They just get anxious when things are not going our way,'' said Jones, who had 22 points but didn't take a shot and had very few touches during the UConn run. "We've got to get them to calm down and learn how to use the clock, especially on the road.''
That road atmosphere is also something the younger Mountaineers are getting used to. Still, it wasn't as if this was the first time this season that WVU had faced a hostile crowd, not after playing at Mississippi State and in Wichita against Kansas State, both Top 25 programs.
"Kansas State was a way rowdier crowd than this and we handled ourselves well,'' Jones said. "That was a month ago.''
Obviously it is still a work in process. Then again, now comes a bit of a break from the road. In the next two weeks WVU's only game away from the Coliseum is next Wednesday's date with Marshall in Charleston. The Mountaineers face Rutgers at home Saturday afternoon and, after Marshall, host Cincinnati a week after that.
Perhaps in that time they can learn a few more things about running offense and be ready by the time they take their next road trip, which in the Big East is merely at No. 1 Syracuse Jan. 25 and then three days later at Madison Square Garden against St. John's.
"Physically, everybody is there. They run the floor and give effort,'' Kilicli said. "It's the mental part of the game, when the people start cheering and you've got to run a play and get them out of it, that kind of stuff kills us.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.