Take Me Home, Country Woes…

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2018

Who knew that John Denver could predict the future? Fine, so West Virginia basketball probably wasn’t on the forefront of the late country star’s mind when he wrote his 1971 hit, but the title nonetheless aptly sums up the Mountaineers’ January performance. Bob Huggins‘ team had an absolutely dreadful month, illustrated by a 1-3 mark away from WVU Coliseum and punctuated by last night’s 93-77 defeat to eighth-place Iowa State — a loss as surprising as it was debilitating for West Virginia’s regular season Big 12 title chances. Throw in a second second-half meltdown against Kansas in as many years, and just like that, the team’s hopes of giving the conference a new champion for the first time in 14 years are dead and buried.

A 1-5 skid has Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers searching for answers. (Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)

We can point to a few factors when diagnosing the current skid. The first is a smattering of blown second-half leads. The Mountaineers held such advantages in their games against Texas Tech, Kansas and Kentucky, but let all three opponents overtake them and grab hold of the victory. On one hand, the abundance of high-quality competition in the Big 12 means that top teams aren’t fazed by their peers in any location, but on the other hand, perhaps the biggest distinction between the program that has a seemingly generational lock on the conference title and those that do not is a keen ability to close games out. A dip in effectiveness in West Virginia’s vaunted press has also betrayed the team, as the Mountaineers’ last six opponents have each posted turnover rates below the season-average 25.4 percent clip. As we saw against Kansas, when West Virginia’s opponents avoid mistakes, not only does their shot volume increase but the Mountaineers fail to score in transition. This correspondingly forces them to rely on their half-court offense, which has never been a particular strength.

The bottom fell out on Wednesday night when the Lindell Wigginton and Donovan Jackson-led Cyclones put together a strong turnover rate of just 12.5 percent. Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles couldn’t create their usual havoc, and the result was the lowest rate of miscues by a West Virginia opponent since Stephen F. Austin in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers rolled up 1.21 points per possession in Hilton Coliseum despite generating just eight takeaways, but that outcome was more of a byproduct of Iowa State’s static, unswitchable defense and West Virginia’s continued success on the offensive boards than any sort of half-court awakening. While Huggins said publicly after the game that he doesn’t have any specific answers, the path for this team to rediscover itself is more simple than he’s letting on: Re-calibrate the press and fine-tune the half-court offense.

The Mountaineers could also stand to receive more consistent production from forward Esa Ahmad, whose return from academic suspension was supposed to bolster the team’s frontcourt depth and keep it in the hunt for the league title. The junior opened his season with quality performances against the Red Raiders and Jayhawks, but he went scoreless and shot a combined 0-of-11 from the field in subsequent losses to TCU and Kentucky. He bounced back with 17 points and eight rebounds last night against Iowa State, but the challenge moving forward lies with producing something closer to that line on a consistent basis if his team is to salvage a high seed in March.

The dream of winning the Big 12 will remain just that for West Virginia, and for now, it’s time to stop thinking of the Mountaineers as a legitimate Final Four threat. They have the personnel and coach to eventually round back into form, but they must make the necessary adjustments to restore what once looked like spectacular postseason potential.

Brian Goodman (966 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.


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