West Virginia's Aaric Murray (front) had a view from the end of the bench at the end of the Mountaineers' home loss against Baylor Wednesday.
LAWRENCE, Kan. - It wasn't long after West Virginia had lost to Baylor in the closing seconds at the Coliseum Wednesday night that Bob Huggins took his usual spot in a postgame interview session and said something, well, rather unusual.Yes, he talked about the mistakes his Mountaineers had made and the multiple passed-on opportunities. He talked about effort and turnovers and shooting, all variations on a season-long theme.But then he veered sharply into a compliment regarding at least a handful of his players, specifically the ones who were allowed to play after he quickly shortened his bench in order to eliminate some dead weight."We played hard. If there's such a thing as feeling better, I feel better because we did play hard,'' Huggins said. "I got all the pouters out of there and let them sit on the bench and pout.''Perhaps it signaled a turning point for West Virginia, even if it is way too late in the process to make any great impact in what has been a torturous season. Then again, maybe it was just a brief break in the storm; nothing permanent or even noteworthy in the grand scheme, but rather just another tease.Well, either way, Huggins isn't letting it go, at least not yet. There haven't been many moments this season when he was able to feel good about much of anything his team did, so when asked Friday if still felt at least a little bit better after some briefs rays of sunshine, he didn't hesitate."Yeah,'' Huggins said. "I do.''Of course, how long that feeling lasts will no doubt be tied to how the Mountaineers perform over the rest of the season. Given that the remaining three games in the regular season all are against teams seemingly headed to the NCAA tournament, there's no guarantee it will last long at all.
Next up is today's 2 p.m. game against No. 6 Kansas at storied Allen Fieldhouse, broadcast nationally by CBS. West Virginia (13-15, 6-9 Big 12) will be trying to do something almost no one does, which is beat Kansas (24-4, 12-3) here. The 16,300-seat arena has sold out 195 straight games and the Jayhawks have lost there just twice since 2007.Kansas coach Bill Self has as many Big 12 championships (eight) as losses at home."We're going into a hard place to play,'' Huggins said of 58-year-old Allen Fieldhouse. "It's loud there. But the primary reason it's a hard place to play is because they've been pretty good. They've been very good.''That's something West Virginia has not been this season, although the then-No. 2 Kansas left Morgantown a month ago with just a 61-56 win. The Mountaineers have lost a lot of close games this season (four games by three points or less and seven by seven or fewer) and the Baylor game on Wednesday was yet another.
But even that seemed encouraging to Huggins, who has always maintained that nothing good can come from a loss, but still seemed to read something into the effort."We had opportunities to win it,'' Huggins said when asked if there was anything else positive he took away from the loss to Baylor. "We missed a 3- or 4-footer. We missed a tip-in. We missed a wide-open look from 3."Even at the end we had a shot at a 3-pointer that would have put us up by two. We had opportunities.''
Still the Mountaineers suffered many of the same misfortunes that have plagued them all season. The turnover number was low for the game, but they were critical. Even when they held on to the ball for a possession, three times they turned it over because of illegal screens. There were also turnovers for offensive fouls."Our problem has been we've shot ourselves in the foot,'' Huggins said.Twenty-eight games into the season, though, Huggins is doing really the only thing he has left to try. In the Baylor game he shortened his bench and went with the players whose attitude and effort he liked the most. Deniz Kilicli, Juwan Staten and Eron Harris each played in excess of 33 minutes for a team on which only Staten averages more than 23 minutes. Terry Henderson and Kevin Noreen logged a combined 50 minutes.In contrast, Aaric Murray started and played just four minutes. Jabarie Hinds didn't start for just the second time in his career and played only six minutes.Huggins was asked if he would continue to follow that script today against Kansas and from here on out. He left no doubt."If we don't try to rebound the ball, if we don't play defense, if we don't play hard, there's no reason to be on the floor,'' Huggins said. "That's my fault. I'll take the blame for that. I made an error in judgment on how to handle some of these guys.
"We're going to miss shots. We're going to make mistakes. But there's no reason not to try hard.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.