MORGANTOWN - There are plenty of good reasons for West Virginia's basketball team not to dwell on Saturday's 63-61 loss to Syracuse or any of the circumstances that helped bring it about.Kevin Jones, though, summed up the best one."It hurts, but we've only got one day to prepare for Pittsburgh,'' Jones said.Indeed, West Virginia (15-7, 5-4 Big East) jumps right back into the fire tonight with a Big Monday game and the first of two Backyard Brawls in the next 21/2 weeks with suddenly resurgent Pitt (13-9, 2-7). Game time for the ESPN-televised contest is 7 p.m.
For the Mountaineers, the fact that the opponent is Pitt perhaps negates the need for much motivation. And that's significant because motivation has been an issue with West Virginia of late.Last Wednesday, WVU apparently had little and was thumped by St. John's at Madison Square Garden. Three days later, the Mountaineers were far more focused and energetic, although the result was still that two-point loss to the No. 3 team in the country.The performance against Syracuse, though, did go to show again what West Virginia is capable of when that focus and effort are there. That it took the debacle against St. John's to bring it out, though, seemed troubling."We have to get consistent,'' Jones said in the moments following Saturday's game at the Carrier Dome. "We shouldn't have to get beat in order for us to come back and give an effort like this. When we give efforts like this, we can play with anybody in the country, beat anybody in the country. We proved that. Things just got away from us.''Well, while things may not have gotten completely away from the Mountaineers, circumstances certainly have changed because of back-to-back losses. West Virginia went into that game at Madison Square Garden just five days ago with a chance to move into second place in the Big East with a win and perhaps into first place with two.After dropping both, though, WVU fell all the way to a tie for seventh after Saturday's games, a position that improved slightly to sixth with the result of Sunday's games. Still, it's a long way from what could have been. Even one win would have had the Mountaineers tied for third."I told them because they didn't come to play Wednesday, we've put ourselves in a heck of a hole,'' coach Bob Huggins said."It's a step forward as far as how we played, but if we could have gotten the win, that would have been an even bigger step,'' Jones said of Saturday's loss at Syracuse. "We've put ourselves in a bad predicament right now. We've just got to dig ourselves out of it.''A good place to start would be putting Pitt into an even worse predicament than it already finds itself. The Panthers stunningly began Big East play 0-7 before beating equally inept Providence last week, but then on Saturday showed real signs of life with a wire-to-wire win over No. 9 Georgetown.The biggest difference is the return of point guard Tray Woodall, who runs the offense and allows preseason Big East player of the year Ashton Gibbs to score.And even in defeat, Pitt never really lost what is annually among its biggest assets - the ability to rebound the ball. The Panthers lead the Big East in rebounding margin and rank third in the country.
"They're tough. They're a good rebounding team that we have to keep off the glass,'' Jones said. "And they've got Tray Woodall back. He's their point guard, so their offense is going to run a little bit better and be able to score a little bit better.''In a way, West Virginia got a bit of a head start preparing for the Panthers when Marshall appeared on the schedule two weeks back.The Herd is coached by Tom Herrion, who was the Pitt assistant coach infamously hit by a thrown coin at the Coliseum two years ago."I know a lot about them, but the young guys don't,'' WVU guard Truck Bryant said. "They play just like Marshall. Pitt's going to do the same thing - guard the 3-point line and run a lot of sets.''As for that focus, well, Huggins isn't quite sure what to expect. On one hand, after Saturday's loss he said of his team that "We'll be fine" after the defeat. But later he talked about essentially the same thing and openly wondered how his freshman-dominated team would react."I don't know. I've told you a thousand times, I flunked mind-reading,'' Huggins said. "I don't know. It's day to day. I have no idea.
"They all know how bad they were [in a 78-62 loss at St. John's]. It's not hard, when you're that bad, to kind of rally and get better. But the battle we have with these young guys is that when we win, they have to do the same things that enabled us to win.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org