MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Who are these guys?
That was the phrase that kept echoing in one’s mind on Tuesday night as West Virginia was disposing of Oklahoma State by 10 points in a game that was nowhere that close.
West Virginia was making shots, running offense, controlling the boards, making quick, sure and sometimes spectacular passes.
And the free throws were falling like a soft summer rain, 20 of 21 for the game, to be exact.
Was this the same team Huggins was speaking about after winning its opener? At that time, he said:
“We just got to be better. We’re not very good right now. We play like this when we play the Big 12 this year, we’ll lose by 20. When you play teams like Kansas and Texas with 7-foot and 6-10 bigs we’re going to get outrebounded by more than the 15 we were tonight, and they are going to capitalize on those offensive rebounds.”
Game after game it was complaints, never the same ones, except the free throw shooting that seemed to be deteriorating almost daily. Huggins’ team was being outrebounded, it needed to pass the ball better, handle the ball better, shoot it better.
Don’t look now, but even though they are unranked, they are actually beginning to think about the race in the Big 12 and, yes, about March.
With No. 1 Baylor losing to Texas Tech on Tuesday, everyone in the conference understood that the Bears are not invincible.
“I’m super excited to see where we can go with this team,” Jalen Bridges said after he scored 22 points against Oklahoma State. “We’re starting to buy in. We’re starting to get that chemistry going.”
So much so that Bridges would even add this:
“I think the sky’s the limit for this team, and we’ll go as far as we want to go,” said Bridges, the former Fairmont Senior High standout.
Gabe Osabuohien, who put together the most magical game of his career with 12 points and eight rebounds in addition to all those other things he does like stealing the ball, taking charges and shutting down a key player on the other end, tried to tone down the optimism..
“There’s still a lot of stuff we need to work on defensively. We’re getting better slowly but have a long way to go,” he said.
But even he couldn’t resist mentioning the unmentionable at this time of year.
“We’re making sure we are better in March,” he said, speaking of the NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps the victory over the Cowboys could be looked upon as a statement game, one of those that warns the Big 12 not to overlook WVU.
“It’s not a statement but we are expected to compete every year,” Bridges said. “It feels like in our conference it’s not just one team that’s unbeatable. It’s anybody’s race. Baylor lost today. Anybody can get the regular season championship.”
The improvement for WVU hasn’t been easy. Someone asked Huggins if it had been a grind for the players to reach the point where they are now.
“I can’t speak for them, but it was a grind for me,” he said. “You would think we got something fixed and try to move on to try and do something else, and then we didn’t do what we had been working on.
“I think our older guys have done a really good job. JB (Bridges) has done a terrific job. Kedy’s (senior guard Kedrian Johnson) done a really good job. Taz Sherman has helped those younger guys. It’s good when those guys are helping you coach. Those younger guys have a lot of respect for those older guys,” Huggins continued.
The most encouraging thing about what WVU is that the one constant positive throughout the year has been the defense. This is important. There are days when you can’t make a shot or when a team comes and plays good defense against you, but you can always play good defense if you are smart, physical and hustle.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton had nothing but praise for WVU’s defense after his team struggled to reach 60 points.
“They took us out of our game,” he said. “Their defense was aggressive as you always expect, and we didn’t respond the right way in terms of playing with the level of composure that we needed to in order to get good shots. I think in the first half we missed five or six easy shots, and you can’t miss your easy ones against them.”
But now comes one of the biggest challenges of the season for this team, as it travels to play at Kansas, then faces No. 1 Baylor in Morgantown and follows that up playing at Texas Tech, the team that upset the Bears Tuesday night.
Is it too much to think the Mountaineers can win two of those three?
“We look at it like every team is going to give you their best shot night in and night out,” Bridges said. “Any team can get beat on any given night … Baylor, Kansas, whoever. It doesn’t matter.”