By Cam Huffman
Nobody inside the West Virginia basketball program would have signed up for what the team has experienced so far this season.
A streak of six losses in eight games? That’s almost uncharted territory in WVU basketball history, and certainly in the career of head coach Bob Huggins. Losing to Davidson and Duquesne? That’s just not supposed to happen. And a 27-point loss against an average Purdue team on the road, well that was nothing short of a nightmare for the folks wearing gold and blue — or black and white as it’s been so often in recent years.
Yet heading into tonight’s 9 p.m. game at Baylor on ESPN2, the Mountaineers (12-11, 5-5) are still very much in the hunt in the Big 12 race. They’re just two games behind Kansas and Kansas State — who are tied at the top at 8-3, Oklahoma State is a half-game back at 7-3 — in the loss column, and one game behind a group of three four-loss teams that are tied for fourth.
With seven of the 10 conference teams sill within striking distance, the end of the season could get very interesting.
“I think every coach is just trying to make sure their team is one of the teams in the hunt and trying to win the next game,” said Baylor head coach Scott Drew, whose Bears will bring a 15-8 overall record and a 6-4 league mark into tonight’s game with WVU.
The fact that WVU is a part of that group is surely a surprise to many. After a 61-56 home loss to Kansas last Monday, the Mountaineers were 9-11 overall and 2-5 in league play. They were one of the worst shooting teams in the country, and they were finding every way possible to lose games — heartbreaking mistakes late in games, uninspired efforts that led to blowouts, big leads that were blown in an instant or simply coming up one or two baskets short.
Since that time, though, WVU has beat up on the Lone Star State, winning at Texas Tech and TCU with a home victory over the Texas Longhorns in between. The three-game winning streak was the first since late December, and tonight the Mountaineers will play another Texas squad, Baylor, looking for the first four-game winning streak of the season.
“We’ve been so close,” said Huggins. “We were real close to beating Kansas here. We were real close to beating Iowa State at Iowa State. We just never really got over the hump and finished a game. Hopefully we have enough confidence now.
“We finally made some shots,” he continued, explaining the major reason for his team’s improved performance. “In at least two of the three (wins) we shot over 50 percent, and it was like 48 against Texas. When we make shots, we give ourselves a chance.”
Eron Harris has been a major part of the improved shooting numbers. The freshman guard has reached double figures in seven of WVU’s last nine games. Terry Henderson, another freshman guard, is also healthy again and has scored 33 points in the last three games, including 17 at TCU on Saturday.
Aaron Murray leads the Mountaineers with 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Juwan Staten is averaging 9.1 points and three assists.
“I think all year long they’ve been very solid defensively and very good on the boards,” said Drew. “I think their offense has picked it up. They’ve got a couple guys now that are making more shots and playing a little more than they did early in the year. When you add that to good defense and good rebounding, that’s what gets you wins.”
Baylor, though, will be anything but any easy matchup. The Bears are second in the Big 12 in scoring offense, averaging more than 75 points per game, and they lead the league in rebounding, pulling down nearly 40 beards per game.
“It’s hard to be successful in college basketball if you can’t hold your own on the glass,” said Drew. “We’ve been better the last couple years.”
Senior point guard Pierre Jackson is the conference’s top scorer, averaging 19.1 points per game, and he’s also a distributor, leading the league with 6.05 assists per contest.
In an 83-81 overtime victory over the Mountaineers last season, Jackson has 23 points and four assists, and he scored eight consecutive points at the end of regulation and into overtime. He also had three steals and five rebounds.
“He beat us scoring a year ago,” remembered Huggins. “He’s certainly one of the best players in the league. He can really score the ball, and he does a great job with ball screens. Obviously, they can get you spread, because they have a number of other guys capable of making shots, as well.”
It’s all cleaned up in the paint by 7-foot-1 freshman center Isaiah Austin, who’s averaging 14 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
Following the trip to Baylor, West Virginia will get a 9-12 Texas Tech team in the WVU Coliseum on Saturday before hitting the road for a huge opportunity against No. 10 Kansas State that could really get the Mountaineers back in the conference mix.
Any chance at a late-season run, though, has to start tonight.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.