MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The first 10 games of West Virginia's basketball season have been a monumental struggle for the Mountaineers. For every step forward it seems there are two steps back.Write off that opening-game 34-point loss to Gonzaga. That's what West Virginia did, taking 10 days off to regroup and recover and essentially start over again.But then a rout of Marist in the first game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., was followed by a mystifying defeat at the hands of Davidson and a loss to Oklahoma.Three games within the state provided some relief in the form of three wins, including Marshall and handing Virginia Tech its first loss. But then came that meltdown at Duquesne - losing a 15-point second-half lead - and briefly competitive loss to No. 3 Michigan in Brooklyn."It's been a struggle, honestly,'' sophomore point guard Juwan Staten said. "I thought we had it going after the Virginia Tech game, but we just couldn't keep it up.''The hope now is that the Mountaineers can build at least a little bit of momentum and confidence with three home games before the start of Big 12 play. The first step was Wednesday night's 76-71 win over Oakland. That wasn't much of a confidence builder given that West Virginia struggled mightily against a team that is now 4-8, but at this point beggars can't be choosers. It was a win.Up next is today's 4 p.m. game against Radford at the Coliseum. The Highlanders are 5-6 and lost their third straight at Charlotte Wednesday night, 68-52. The Mountaineers are then off for a short holiday break before hosting Eastern Kentucky a week from Sunday. League play begins the following Saturday at home against Oklahoma.While the question of whether West Virginia can string together some wins in what qualifies as the soft spot in its schedule is in some ways secondary to another issue: Who do the Mountaineers rely upon to get that done? By this point in the season, coach Bob Huggins has generally pared his rotation down to nine or 10 players. Not so now.Nine of WVU's 13 scholarship players have started a game this season and all 13 seem likely to be called upon at any time. Save for Aaric Murray's one-game suspension against Michigan, Huggins has used 11 and 12 players the last two games. And the one who has played the least in those two games, Aaron Brown, started as recently as the Virginia Tech game."We probably have too many guys that are all about the same,'' Huggins said. "The prudent thing to do is play the ones who are playing the best that day.''
The problem is that through 10 games Huggins has found very few players who are reliable in the long term, so he works each game to find the ones who might be playing well that night."I thought when I came here that we probably weren't going to have the five best players in our league, probably not even close,'' Huggins said. "But maybe we have the 10 best and we can wear people down. We can get out and pressure and make everything hard, make every pass hard, and just wear them down. And to a degree we have. But this team is just not consistent. We'll have somebody do a really good thing and then they'll do a really stupid thing.''As such, the Mountaineers might have Kevin Noreen scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against Virginia Tech and then disappearing for three games. Jabarie Hinds will take over a game for brief stretches and then try to do it and miss everything he shoots (4 for 21 in one three-game stretch). Murray will be suspended for an attitude and then have an all-world performance when he returns against Oakland.And then there's Deniz Kilicli, who against Marshall was as good as he's ever been with 21 points. In the last two games he has been a liability who was benched for virtually the entire second half of both games."But at least Deniz knows he's not been playing very well,'' Huggins said. "We have a couple in there who [won't admit that].''
In Radford, the Mountaineers will face a team that, like the Mountaineers, will use its bench and doesn't shoot the ball very well (41.7 percent). A pair of sophomores, 6-4 forward Javonte Green and 6-foot guard R.J. Price lead the Highlanders in scoring, each averaging about 13 points.Radford also starts 6-5, 205-pound sophomore Kyle Noreen, the younger brother of WVU's Kevin. He averages 4.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. The Highlanders are coached by Mike Jones, who was an assistant under John Beilein at Richmond and came with him to West Virginia for a year.Jones is the first of two consecutive former WVU assistants who will coach at the Coliseum. Eastern Kentucky's coach is former Beilein assistant Jeff Neubauer.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.