The Mountaineers, once again, had a chance for a win over a solid team. And West Virginia, once again, overcame its own abilities with enough self-inflicted errors – mental and physical – to lose the winnable in the 73-70 defeat to Purdue on Saturday. It's not that this team exactly takes defeat from the proverbial victory jaws; it's not in that position quite frequently enough. It's more that it often, sometimes inexplicably, harms itself beyond reproach with a variety of mistakes so widespread, it's difficult to gauge from where the next might originate.
It's the little things that amass to stack a mighty deck. Missed cutters, consecutive missed lay-ins from point blank range. A lane violation on a made free throw. The mental checkouts from various players for a play, a possession and sometimes more. And it's turned a team that seemed brimming with promise to one that's bridled with a likely 8-5 nonconference mark, not nearly the early push needed to set up a more special season.
The chances have now run out. With just William and Mary remaining prior to Big 12 play, the Mountaineers have laid the goose egg in nonconference games of significance. WVU has lost to every high-level foe it has faced, and some that aren't so high, like a bad loss at Virginia Tech after leading by 17 and the latest defeat to a now 10-win team whose most cherish victory was the one picked up today. Purdue hadn't beaten anyone of consequence, and likely still hasn't. And much of that is because West Virginia isn't good enough to overcome itself. As noted hockey coach Herb Brooks often espoused, WVU isn't "talented enough to win on talent alone."
Consider: The Boilermakers diced WVU's zone looks for backdoor buckets and dump downs on the blocks multiple times when the game was on the line directly following Mountaineer timeouts to set-up the look. Then, instructions were given by head coach Bob Huggins as to whom to foul after an initial trap on the inbounds pass late, and those, too, were discarded. None of its intentional, but it seems to happen game-in and –out. And it's showing in a myriad of ways. There was a distinct lack of energy in the Coliseum, both on the part of the Mountaineers themselves in stretches, and for the fan base for most of the game. There were missed lay-ups, missed shots and missed opportunities. Somehow, WVU managed a lane violation on a made free throw. It also missed three shots, two of the lay-in variety, within a five-second span during an early portion of the game when the chance was there to blow open the edge to 17-6. Instead, the Mountaineers missed the three shots, then the next three on as many possessions for good measure as Purdue rallied to tie the game at 14-14.
Later, the Mountaineers, somehow, went nine straight possessions in the first half without scoring. The Boilermakers bench far outplayed that of WVU, outscoring the Mountaineers 25-4. Kevin Noreen was on the floor for less than two minutes before having to be yanked for quick fouls. Remi Dibo again went long stretches without mentally clicking in to what the Mountaineers were trying on both ends, and took just two shots all game. That's far too few for a player of his shooting ability, yet Huggins can't leave him on the floor because he's costing the team far more than he's helped. Other players missed ball screen instructions, both early and late in the game, leading to an exasperated Huggins.
"You've got a veteran guy – we put the ball in (Staten's) hands, call a timeout, call a set, you've got a guy that's wide open and we don't throw him the ball, and don't screen the right guy," Huggins said. "I just don't know what to do about that."
There were bright spots. West Virginia wasn't stagnant early, and it started the contest well. Devin Williams seems to have found his stroke from the free throw line, and the freshman registered his fourth double-double over his first 12 collegiate games. Williams typically showcases solid shot selection and doesn't hunt points. He can hit the putback, and create his own opportunities. Staten pieced together another commendable effort – despite some late-game troubles in regards to distribution and quick offensive set-up – scoring 14 points and double his assists against turnovers at 4 to 2. Terry Henderson was adequate, but simply didn't hit shots – a death blow on a team that will live and die (mostly the latter of late) with the jumper.
Stat of the game: Once Eron Harris and Henderson staked WVU to the early 14-6 lead with a pair of threes, the team combined to miss 13 of its final 14, including Harris' blocked effort to tie the game at the buzzer. And still, the Mountaineers had their chances. But the busted execution, the mental lapses, the inability to piece all of the offense together for stretches, all point to this team being of mid-level NIT rank, and not much more. It's progress, especially considering last season. But the ceiling should be far greater for this team, and it can be if some of the issues can just be tidied a bit. Until then, West Virginia won't beat anybody but itself.