MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If you consider Kansas State a legitimate Top 25 basketball team, you have to give a nod to West Virginia University's team.Look at the box score in the No. 18 Wildcats' 65-64 victory over the Mountaineers Saturday at the Coliseum. Both teams shot 51 percent. K-State won the rebounding battle by one. Both had 26 points in the paint. Both had eight second-chance points. Both had four fast-break points. The winners took but two more shots.The contest came down to a final Mountaineer possession that fell apart like a Hollywood marriage.But, hey, it was close, right?The reality is, that's a victory for this WVU team. Right now. In the team's first two games against ranked opponents, the Mountaineers lost by an average of 24.5 points. So a 1-point loss - at home, on the road, in a basement, wherever - is a win.Here's the question: Is that what this season has become, a search for improvement and moral victories to help build confidence?In the last two games, there's been a little of both for the Mountaineers. Winning at Texas in overtime was a feel-good result, although Iowa State drubbed the Longhorns by 20 on Saturday.Then, at the Coliseum, there were a few more sparks.First, there were some eye-opening moments provided by WVU forward Dom Rutledge. He had three steals. He showed some athleticism. After one blocked shot, he was at the other end of the court for a finish, in which he was fouled.The box score shows just four points and a couple rebounds for Rutledge, but there's been improvement for the senior, who transferred in last year from a junior college."Dom isn't new," said teammate Kevin Noreen. "This is his second year. When he has his head on, like he did today, you saw what he could do on defense. He was guarding a [small forward] and stealing the ball. That's what Dom can do. We've seen it from Dom. We just need it every time we play."
"I think I've improved a lot with knowing where I'm supposed to be on the court," Rutledge said. "Being on the same page with everybody. I think that ultimately got me more playing time."Freshman guard Eron Harris was also impressive. He hit a baseline jumper late to give the Mountaineers a 64-63 lead. He was, at times, very aggressive and active defensively. When K-State was whistled for a 5-second inbounds violation, it was Harris guarding Rodney McGruder, the intended target of the inbounder."With Eron, the sky's the limit," Noreen said. "That 2 he made along the baseline was a heck of a shot. With him, what I try to do is keep him focused. He'll have lapses in practice where he'll start getting off track. His mind will wander. He'll daydream. Then his man will score when we're trying to run the scout offense and he messes it up. We gotta have him on the same page. When he can do that, he'll be a heck of a player.""It just happened to happen," Harris said of the baseline jumper. "I feel like it was lucky, but I like having that shot."
So there is improvement. Keep in mind the Mountaineers almost won without normal point guard Juwan Staten, who is so far in Bob Huggins' doghouse that he didn't play a minute on Saturday. ("He's going to get on the same page with me or he's not going to play anymore," Huggins said.) Boston College transfer Matt Humphrey, a senior, has disappeared on the bench. Ditto Aaron Brown.The team is young. "We started two sophomores [Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne] and a freshman [Terry Henderson] on the perimeter," Huggins said.
So, again, the question: Is it time to simply look for improvement and moral victories?All evidence says yes. WVU is almost halfway through its season at 8-7 with 16 games remaining. Even if the Mountaineers split the rest of their games, the team finishes 16-15.But Huggins is the coach. He's steeled WVU teams in the past. Also, the Big 12 is relatively weak this season.That can help and hurt West Virginia. Winning this season won't help with the strength of schedule as in the past within the Big East. Only Kansas and K-State are currently ranked.
But the lack of strong Big 12 teams also allows for the possibility of a turnaround.Noreen said more has to happen."Trying to run fresh bodies at people was our plan at the beginning of the year," said the sophomore. "We need to get Turk [Deniz Kilicli] going again. He's probably the strongest post [player] in the league. We've got to get him looks. At the same time, he's got to get rebounds on the opposite end. In Coach Huggins' book and in the team's book, that's more important."Huggins obviously had Kilicli in mind during his postgame comments."I thought we competed," said the coach. "The problem is we don't do it on a consistent basis. Did all nine guys that played compete? Absolutely not. But most of them did."Note that Huggins was relatively positive and not throwing up his arms in disgust and frustration as of late."I think we've improved as a team," Rutledge said. "We still have a lot to do as a team to get better. It's still early. We have a bunch of big games ahead of us. This was a big one, but hopefully we can get them next time."That would help. Winning three-quarters of the remaining Big 12 games would help. A run in the Big 12 tournament would help.But if the Mountaineers don't have success in the next four games - at Iowa State, at Purdue, home against TCU and at Oklahoma State - start charting those moral victories.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.