The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 12, 2013

Is WVU really any better?

Mountaineeers running out of opportunities to get statement victory

West Virginia fans want to get behind the 2013-14 Mountaineer basketball team. After a painful 13-19 finish a year ago they want a reason to cheer. They want an excuse to pack the Coliseum and they are longing to discuss the 2010 Final Four run without thinking how far the program has fallen since those days.

The numbers say this team is better. The Mountaineers (6-4) are shooting better from the field. Turnovers are down. Assists are up. Team chemistry has improved.

But every time WVU has a chance to show that improvement to the country, it falls short.

It happened in Mexico, when WVU fell behind by 17 against No. 10 Wisconsin and couldn’t quite complete the comeback, falling 70-63.

It happened in Missouri, when the Mountaineers followed a similar script, allowing the undefeated Tigers to take a 25-point second-half lead before WVU closed within four points down the stretch in an 80-71 loss.

And it happened inside the WVU Coliseum Tuesday, when the Mountaineers reversed the trend, building up a 10-point second-half lead on No. 20 Gonzaga before falling 80-76.

“We’re so close to being pretty good,” said head coach Bob Huggins following the latest setback. “But, at the same time, we’re so far away.”

Huggins’ words also reflect the larger picture. WVU is close to having a good season and erasing the nightmare of 2012-13, if it can start winning those types of games — and it will have some chances with Purdue left on the nonconference slate and a conference schedule that includes No. 7 Oklahoma State twice, No. 13 Kansas twice, No. 14 Baylor twice and No. 17 Iowa State twice.

But with a difficult slate ahead, WVU is also on the verge of another slide. If it doesn’t start winning some of the close ones, that chemistry, which has been so much better, could change. The confidence could disappear and another losing season could be waiting in the wings.

The next three weeks, with conference play beginning against TCU on Jan. 4, will be key. WVU needs to win the next three — against Marshall in the Capital Classic on Saturday, at home against Purdue on Dec. 22 and in Charleston against William & Mary on Dec. 29 — to build some momentum heading into conference play, and Huggins believes it will.

“I think we’ve competed with everybody we’ve played,” said Huggins. “Given another chance at the end of the year, I think we could beat every team we’ve played. We’re going to continue to get better and better. At the same time, we’ve got to win enough games to be able to do that.”

There’s just no time for learning on the job.

— E-mail: chuffman@ and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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