West Virginia's Juwan Staten (center) splits a pair of TCU defenders during Saturday's game.
MORGANTOWN - Don't count out West Virginia's basketball team just yet.No, the Mountaineers still haven't proven they are much better than the team that has languished around .500 all season long. They are still there, in fact, climbing just a game over the break-even mark with Saturday's 63-50 win at TCU.Nor has West Virginia beaten a team with a winning record in Big 12 play. Saturday's win brought the Mountaineers to 5-5 in the league (12-11 overall) with all five wins against Texas, TCU and Texas Tech, teams that have won only five conference games between them, three of those against each other.Still, a three-game winning streak against any competition is nothing at which to scoff. And so coach Bob Huggins and his players are not."I think we're better,'' Huggins said after Saturday's win in Fort Worth. "Obviously we're better.''How so?"Well, we gave up 36 percent shooting [to TCU] and I think that's kind of what we're accustomed to seeing. We didn't do that earlier in the year,'' Huggins said. "We shot 51 percent. We didn't do that earlier in the year and that's because of shot selection and because we're causing more live-ball turnovers [and getting layups in transition]. And we're passing the ball better.''Much of the difference simply has to do with experience and maturation. The Mountaineers have only two players who have been in the program more than one season (Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Noreen) and only Kilicli has played more than one full season.The youth is particularly evident in the backcourt, where Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne are in their second seasons, Juwan Staten is a transfer playing his first and Eron Harris and Terry Henderson are freshmen.
"I think everybody kind of forgets that we're playing three sophomores and two freshmen in the backcourt,'' Huggins said. "It took a while. It took a lot longer than I wanted. It took a lot longer than I expected.''If nothing else, West Virginia's three-game winning streak has positioned it for the final eight games of the season. It's not a great position - 5-5 in the league and in seventh place among 10 teams - but it's not nearly as dire as it seemed just a few games ago.In fact, at 5-5 the Mountaineers are just a game out of a tie for fourth place and only two games out of second."Honestly, if you think about it, we maybe shoulda, coulda beaten a couple of those other teams at home,'' Huggins said of down-to-the wire home defeats to Oklahoma, Kansas State and Kansas, the last two by a combined three points. "And then all of a sudden we've got seven wins and eight wins in the league and all you guys are saying, 'Hey, they're really good.' It's so much a game of inches sometimes.''Well, over those last eight games West Virginia will have a chance to win some of those games and perhaps make more movement in the league standings than rising above the basement dwellers. Of the final eight games, seven are against teams ranked above the Mountaineers in the standings, beginning with Wednesday night's game at Baylor. Half of the final eight games are at home, starting with a three-in-four-games stretch at the Coliseum beginning Saturday (Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor).So there is plenty of opportunity for movement in the standings. At this point, it's just a matter of which way WVU goes. And for the first time in a while, the possibility that the direction might be up seems at least realistic.
"You know, there were a lot of people that gave us up for dead,'' Huggins said. "I'm happy with the resiliency we've shown."We're 5-5 and there are going to be some other people lose and fall to us and we certainly can help ourselves. We'll just try to keep winning.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.