AMES, Iowa — Somewhere along the path from WVU’s 83-76 loss to Kentucky to the Mountaineers’ 7 p.m. Wednesday battle at Iowa State, a question was posed to me on the Twittersphere.
Craig Heath of Ohio asked if I could remember a mid-season collapse comparable to what West Virginia is experiencing now.
And the answer is yes.
To some degree, Craig, it was just last season.
No, WVU didn’t lose four of five. Yet the Mountaineers had very, very similar struggles to that of this season. And I have proof.
It was a column I typed with the headline “Letdowns troubling for WVU basketball.” It was dated Jan. 28, 2017. (Here’s where you take a moment and check your calendar for today’s date.) And when I handed a copy of the column to a Mountaineer fan and friend, there was but a three-word response:
Oh. My. God.
Herewith is a sample of the aforementioned column:
“Heading into Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge game against Texas A&M, the thought was WVU would be tested by the taller Aggies.
“As the Mountaineers move toward an NCAA tournament berth, one figured it would be a nice learning experience. Somewhere along the way, WVU will have to deal with a lineup like Texas A&M’s.
“In the end, though, what West Virginia learned wasn’t noticeable. Instead, it’s what the Mountaineers haven’t learned.
“In short, they haven’t learned to avoid letdowns. They haven’t learned to put the proverbial hammer down against lesser teams. They haven’t learned to stay mentally focused after building a nice lead.”
This past Saturday, WVU was winning by 17 points and lost to Kentucky. On that 2017 day in Morgantown, the Mountaineers were winning by 20 early in the second half — and had to hold on for dear life before winning 81-77.
The more things stay the same, the more things don’t change, eh? Or something like that.
“I’ve seen too many leads disappear,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins almost exactly one year ago.
“Indeed, the Mountaineers were up by 19 against Kansas, even though they still won convincingly,” read the column. “In Manhattan a week prior to Saturday’s game, they were up by 12 to Kansas State and fell 79-75. Against Oklahoma in the Coliseum, they held a 15-point lead and shockingly lost 89-87 in overtime. Back in the loss to Texas Tech, they held a seven-point lead in the second half before falling.
“It’s to the point where Huggins is troubled.
“‘I’d say that’s a fair statement,’ said the coach.”
Now, here we are, Craig. In three of the recent four WVU losses, the Mountaineers have held double-digit leads — 11 in the second half against Texas Tech, 16 near halftime against Kansas and 17 early in the second half against Kentucky.
What one might forget, though, is free throw shooting was a serious WVU deficiency last season. At season’s end, the Mountaineers converted but 68.5 percent of their attempts from the stripe. This season, that’s much better at 75.1 percent.
In regard to field goal percentage, though, West Virginia was 45.4 percent last season and is at 42.3 this season. From 3-point range, the Mountaineers were 36.2 percent then and are 33.5 percent now.
We’ll see if Huggins can pull off one of his famous “fixes” in that regard. WVU has a good chance to build a lead against 11-9 Iowa State at the Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones, led by freshman Lindell Wigginton, are young and hobbled. Point guard Nick Weiler-Babb, who had a rough game in ISU’s 68-45 home loss to Tennessee, is reportedly out.
Also, overall, Iowa State has lost seven of its last nine games. It is tied with Baylor in the Big 12’s cellar, while WVU is tied for second.
You get the gist. While the Mountaineers are struggling, the Cyclones are really, really struggling.
Yet back to the column for one last revisit. Almost exactly one year ago, Mountaineer forward Esa Ahmad said, “We came out sluggish. We had a big lead at halftime and let down in the second half [against A&M].” Huggins added, “Our effort sucked. Our effort absolutely sucked. … Maybe I ought to play freshmen instead of seniors that don’t give us effort.” Again, sound familiar?
Then there was the column’s ending. It stood then. And it will stand here.
“The team has to embrace — not reject — prosperity. It has to understand what’s there for the taking — and grab it.”