MIKE CASAZZA: This West Virginia team reached its ceiling

WASHINGTON — Not even six weeks ago, West Virginia was entertaining with a 14-9 record and entertaining thoughts of the NCAA Tournament. As absurd as that sounds today, two days after the Mountaineers were chased off the floor and out of the NIT by Georgetown, it was absolutely acceptable as it was happening.

WVU was a team growing before your eyes and gaining ground with all the credibility lost during the lost 2013 season. A team that had once lost 16 in a row to ranked teams and 19 in a row against teams in the RPI’s top 100 had won three such games while taking four out of five overall.

Then everything changed, and rather noticeably, as the Mountaineers lost seven of their final 10 games, after losing their last seven last season. They went from having conversations rooted in reality about what they needed to do to get into the NCAA Tournament to being one of the last teams invited to the NIT.

In the end, WVU did about as well is it could given the makeup of the roster and the players’ individual and collective limitations. Going from six games below .500 one year to one above .500 a year later with four first-year players playing a lot of minutes is bigger than a baby step as Bob Huggins tries to build a grown man’s program once again.

In the end, you had a team that did about as well as it could have done about six weeks ago and never took another step forward after that, wins against the Big 12’s regular-season and tournament champions notwithstanding.

And in the end, you had a team that was never ready to be better than it was this season. It played that way and it acted that way and the Mountaineers admitted as much when it was over, saying they lacked a hunger or a desire to extend their season beyond a tiny gymnasium in the shadow of the nation’s capital. If a team needs to be inspired to win postseason games, it doesn’t need to be in the postseason. That WVU got there is something of an achievement because that’s a team that started steering things the wrong way six weeks ago.

“I think we stopped listening,” said forward Kevin Noreen. “Coaches question that every day: ‘Are you guys listening?’ That’s probably the main problem. I still think guys listen to the scouting reports. They listen to what’s expected and what to expect in games. But at the end of the day, when Huggs tries to talk to someone one-on-one, sometimes it went in one ear and out the other with a few guys.”

That’s a heavy indictment. It goes beyond telling a player which way the opponent will drive or how they’ll guard on an inbound under the basket. It’s about telling players to watch film on their own or put up extra shots after practice or to take the weight room seriously.

The players and the coach make it sound like many Mountaineers thought they had it all figured out and decided they didn’t need to pay as much attention or pay as much of a price when it came to spending time on the game.

That’ll do it every time, and you saw it happen this time. WVU was better this season than it was last season. WVU did not get better as this season progressed, and you’re left wondering if that’s because everyone on the team didn’t want to get better as the season progressed.

“What’s so great about our game, that people who didn’t have the opportunity to experience it probably don’t understand, is that you can’t cheat it,” Huggins said. “You can’t cheat basketball. Basketball is going to win if you don’t put the time in.

“It’s like anything else. It’s like your girlfriend. If you don’t pay attention to her, she’s not going to be around very long.”

The defense was bad from the start and at its worst at the end. Rebounding was a deficiency, though a team with literal shortcomings did well to outrebound 14 opponents and win seven times in 18 games it was outrebounded. Then the spirit and determination that carried the team through low moments after games and tough times within games deteriorated, slowly, but surely, until the Mountaineers offered little resistance as things started to get away in losses to Oklahoma, Texas and Georgetown.

They were 0-15 in games they trailed by eight or more points and they fell behind by double figures 12 times. Those are alarming numbers, but it’s more problematic that they became more common toward the end. They lost their final seven games by 14, 17, 13, 17, 10, 17 and 12 points. Only twice in the first 23 games did they lose by more than nine points.

More and more, the Mountaineers looked like a group that once thought it had the answers and eventually realized it had no remedies. That’s a mistake a group with no seniors can’t make next season, which doesn’t seem like a lot to ask of a group that was better than it was last season.

“We have a lot players going through this for the first time,” point guard Juwan Staten said. “No matter what you say to a player going through it for the first time, he’s never going to fully understand it until he’s gone through it. With everyone going through it this year, I think everyone is going to have a better concept of what to expect going into next year.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.

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