Iowa State's Melvin Ejim is fouled by WVU's Nathan Adrian during the Mountaineers' loss Wednesday.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In at least some ways, West Virginia's basketball team seems to have reverted to what it was in November and December.That's not entirely true, of course, because the Mountaineers have made strides. Still, consider the broader view.Early in the season, it was a team still learning how to do anything more than take advantage of its strength, which was an ability to shoot the basketball. At that point, defense, rebounding, all sorts of team concepts were in the development stage and West Virginia won or lost games pretty much on the basis of whether they shot the ball well or not.That dependence on shooting wasn't as great as the season went along and the Mountaineers discovered how to do other things. When they were doing those other things - playing defense, getting to the basket, rebounding - they were at their best.
But then look at West Virginia's last three games. There has been no inside presence at all, the Mountaineers having been outscored 130-50 in the paint. Getting to the basket has been a chore. Rebounding has been uneven, at best.So West Virginia has been reduced to what it was before, a team that lives and dies on shooting, both its own and that of its opponents. If Wednesday's 83-66 loss at Iowa State wasn't sufficient enough an example, go back the last three games, all of which WVU has lost."We're trying to outscore teams,'' point guard Juwan Staten said. "And when we're not making shots, not hitting open 3s, it's going to be tough for us unless we start guarding.''Making shots and playing defense well enough to prevent other teams from doing the same are really all the Mountaineers have to fall back on at this point. Neither has been accomplished in those last three games.Texas, Baylor and Iowa State each have shot better than 50 percent against a West Virginia team that is dead last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense. So much for playing good defense."That's what [coach Bob Huggins] preaches every day in practice. That's what we emphasize in every game, guarding,'' Staten said. "And right now we're just not doing a good job of it.''On the flip side, the Mountaineers have shot 40 percent or worse in all three games. In the one game they did find a bit of a shooting touch from 3-point range, Baylor negated that by scoring virtually every time it had the basketball in the second half.In other words, if it's not their shooting that beats the Mountaineers it's the other team's shooting. And lately it's a combination of both. Eron Harris missed all five of his 3-point attempts at Iowa State. Nathan Adrian and Gary Browne were a combined 2 for 9. Terry Henderson didn't play a second straight game because he's sick."We didn't get stops and we didn't make any shots,'' Huggins said. "You can't be any more open than Gary was on some of those shots. You can't be any more open than Nate was in the Baylor game. They're wide open. You've got to make open shots.'' BRIEFLY: At 15-13 overall and 7-8 in Big 12 play, NCAA tournament talk is over for West Virginia barring a 3-0 finish to the regular season and a deep run in the Big 12 tournament. And even then it might take a tourney title and the league's automatic bid.What realistically remains is the possibility of an NIT berth and staying out of the two Big 12 tournament play-in games. The NIT no longer requires a winning record for entry, but it is rare that organizers take a team that is less than even a couple of games over .500.
As for staying out of the league's two play-in games, WVU is one spot above the bottom four in the standings, one game ahead of both Baylor and Oklahoma State, who are each 6-9. On Saturday, WVU hosts last-place TCU in a 1:30 p.m. game at the Coliseum, then finishes with a road game at Oklahoma and a home game with No. 5 Kansas.A win over TCU Saturday might be enough to keep WVU out of the bottom four because Baylor and Oklahoma State have difficult closing stretches, too. Baylor plays Iowa State and at Kansas State after a home game with Texas Tech, while OSU has Kansas, Kansas State and on the road at Iowa State.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.