STILLWATER, Okla. - As West Virginia's basketball season plods along, the Mountaineers teetering around the .500 mark and making discussions of an NIT bubble almost embarrassingly relevant, it's still difficult at times to quite understand why.Bob Huggins has his theories, others theirs.Saturday's 80-66 meltdown loss to Oklahoma State here perhaps illuminated several of those theories. But it settled none of them.Just for kicks, let's delve into three of them today. We won't settle anything, of course, but we can at least air them out to the extent that 25 or so column inches will allow.
First - since it is, after all, his basketball team - we'll look at what has repeatedly become a Huggins theme this winter. Specifically, this isn't a very smart basketball team."We have a timeout and we're going to run a set against a zone. And I can't get guys on the right side of the floor after a timeout,'' Huggins said. "I think, if you look historically at my teams, we've scored at an extremely high rate after timeouts. I can't get these guys on the right side of the floor."They know the stuff. It's not that they don't know the stuff. I don't know what goes through their heads.''Huggins isn't accusing his players of being dumb, mind you. That's the mystifying part. For the most part these are smart kids. OK, so they might not be Joe Herber-smart, but they aren't dumb jocks.Huggins' theory seems to be that they simply don't collectively take the game as seriously as he would like, thus giving the appearance of a low basketball IQ when the same mistakes happen again and again.
"I don't know,'' Huggins said of how to correct the attention and focus issues. "I've never had guys like this.''Of course, while attention to detail is certainly a pertinent point, so too is your theory. And by your theory I mean what seems to be the consensus of most fans: This just isn't a very talented team.That's got to be a factor. Huggins spent much of the preseason touting the depth and versatility this team has, what with multiple experienced point guards (Juwan Staten, Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne), a four- or five-man rotation of bigs (Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray, Dominique Rutledge, Kevin Noreen and untested Volodymyr Gerun) and enough shooters (freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris, Matt Humphrey, Aaron Brown) that someone could usually be counted on to have a hot hand.And he's right. This team is well rounded as far as having all of the elements."They don't have better players than us,'' Harris said of Oklahoma State. "We're just not focused on every aspect of the game, whether it's plays or defense or what this player does or what that one does.''
Well, the second part of Harris' assertion is probably right. That's what Huggins has been saying all along. The first part? Not so much.
In Oklahoma State's starting lineup there are two McDonald's All-Americans. Point guard Marcus Smart was the Big 12's preseason freshman of the year. Forward Le'Bryan Nash was one of just five players named to the preseason all-league team.Throw in freshman guard Phil Forte, who isn't a great all-around player but can outshoot anyone on WVU's roster, and add a superb athlete and shooter like Markel Brown and a near-7-foot body in Philip Jurick (Huggins nearly landed him out of junior college) and you have maybe five guys who would start for West Virginia.So, yes, talent is certainly an issue.But Huggins has overcome talent deficiencies in the past, even with some of his best teams at Cincinnati. He's done it with attention to detail and hard work. And for short spurts of late, this team has actually shown signs of having the potential to do the same.That was never more evident than in the first 15 minutes Saturday against Oklahoma State. Which brings us to my theory of the moment, which is that this team is actually getting better at the one thing that Huggins seems to have focused all of his energy on - turning this into a team that wins with aggressive, annoying, please-leave-me-alone defense.But it just isn't capable of doing that for 40 minutes. Or even 30 or sometimes 20.
Saturday it was there for about 15 minutes. At one stretch in the first half, Oklahoma State had the ball 16 times and scored twice. It wasn't because of a cold spell of shooting. There were turnovers and forced shots, blocked shots and general befuddlement. And it was all because of the way West Virginia was playing defense.It might be too much to ask that a team play that way for 40 minutes or even 30 or 35 minutes every night. Think of how draining that is. But it's the only way this team is going to win. It has to be so aggravating to opponents that eventually they just give up.But is it possible?"Man, we practice three hours [a day], this should be a walk in the park for us,'' said Kilicli, who played 28 of the hardest minutes he's played in his career. "That's how it used to be. A guy would play 40 minutes and still be fresh. That's how we used to do it.''If this team is to have a chance of making something out of this season, this group should probably figure out how to do that, too.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.