MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Cleaning out a crowded notebook and a cluttered mind while waiting to go back to Texas. Again:West Virginia's basketball team will do so, too, of course. It's the third such trip in the last 12 days, this one for a Wednesday night game against Baylor in Waco. Last weekend brought a trip to Fort Worth to face TCU. The weekend before that it was Lubbock and Texas Tech.
For the record, the trips have been worth it for the Mountaineers, who are now 3-0 there, including a Jan. 9 win over Texas in Austin. And by the way, when this whole Big 12 thing began in the fall, who among us expected that West Virginia would be 3-0 vs. Texas (the university, not the state, and two of those in Austin) in football and basketball, and 6-10 against everyone else?Anyway, Bob Huggins was asked about the travel the other day after the TCU game by a Texas reporter who at least showed the self-awareness to preface it with, "I know you've probably been asked this a thousand times.''"I don't know. I honestly don't know,'' Huggins said of whether the constant on-and-off of airplanes was affecting his team at all. "We're going to fly 31,400 miles. You realize that's like one and a quarter times around the world?''There's little anyone can do about it, of course, so why dwell on the subject? Huggins, whose team has faced far more challenges than just travel this season, certainly isn't."You know what I decided? I decided I'd never been through a year like this and I'm not going to be unhappy when we win,'' Huggins said shortly after Saturday's 63-50 win at TCU. "I'm going to be happy. We're going to get us some barbeque, we'll get on that plane and head back and then turn around Tuesday and come back to Waco.''Speaking of things few thought possible (like being 3-0 against Texas in football and basketball), how about this one: Two weeks ago West Virginia was 2-5 in the Big 12 and five games behind then-No. 2 Kansas. Today the Mountaineers are two games behind the Jayhawks in the league standings.
A three-game losing streak by Kansas (which hasn't won since beating WVU by two points in Morgantown) and a three-game winning streak by West Virginia (which hasn't lost since that Big Monday game) will do that in a hurry.That the Mountaineers have accomplished their little mini-run against the three worst teams in the Big 12 is, of course, well chronicled. And because of the state of that competition, everything else has to be approached cautiously.But there are some signs that this team might be coming around, not the least of which is better shooting. As Huggins was quick to point out last week, that might have as much to do with improvement in other aspects of the game (running offense, getting offensive rebounds for easy put-backs, forcing turnovers that are converted into layups, etc.) as it does pure shooting, but that's improved, too."We're getting Eron [Harris] and Terry [Henderson] more shots,'' Huggins said of the two freshmen guards. "They're our most consistent perimeter shooters.''Indeed, while adjusting to the college game, Harris did not have a game in which he attempted double figures in shots through the first 14 games. He's had six in the last eight games. And while Henderson's shot attempts haven't increased - they've actually decreased of late - that's because he was struggling with a bad back. Now he's working his way back and is 8 of 10 on 3-pointers the last three games.
It helps immensely, too, that Deniz Kilicli is also playing well inside."I think Deniz has been so much more active,'' Huggins said. "And when Deniz is active, Deniz draws people, which opens up things for other people. You look at his stat line [at TCU] and he goes 4 for 8. But what it doesn't show is how many times he draws people to him because everybody's concerned about him scoring close.''
The most encouraging thing for the future, though, is the way Harris and Henderson are shooting and scoring, especially Harris. When Henderson was making shots earlier in the season it was easy for opponents to counter that and defend him because no one else could shoot."The truth of the matter is that before he was just one of the guys running around out there,'' Huggins said. "And now they kind of set their defense to make sure that he doesn't get the looks that he did get."If you think about it, the guy they were chasing before was Terry, and then Terry got hurt and I don't think anybody thought Eron could shoot it the way he shoots it.''Another reason West Virginia is improving is because the Mountaineers have been pretty much relentless on defense. But at TCU, and at other times, that's resulted in foul trouble.
On Saturday, Huggins did something he rarely does to counter that."We went 2-3 zone because they were coming down and attacking us and I thought everybody was going to foul out there for a while,'' Huggins said. "We went to the 2-3 zone just to try to burn some clock and make it so they couldn't just come down and attack us.''
The problem is that West Virginia doesn't rebound well in that defense. TCU outrebounded the Mountaineers a whopping 16-5 in that first half. The problem was compounded by the fact that WVU wasn't getting any offensive rebounds, either. It was 31 minutes into the game before Kevin Noreen got the team's second and third offensive rebounds on the same possession."We haven't played 2-3 zone since the Oklahoma game and we lost the Oklahoma game because they outrebounded us in crucial situations,'' Huggins said. "Am I concerned about it? Yeah, I'm concerned about it.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.