By CAM HUFFMAN
for the Daily Telegraph
The evidence shows that the 2013-14 West Virginia University basketball team is average, at best.
The numbers are all there. WVU has just three wins all season against major conference opponents — two against Texas Tech and one against TCU. The Mountaineers haven’t beaten a team above 100 in the RPI ratings and they’re 0-4 against Top 25 teams.
After a somewhat encouraging start to the season, WVU (11-9, 3-4 Big 12) has dropped four of its last five games, and with seven of the last 11 contests coming against teams ranked in the Top 25, even topping last year’s 13-19 mark is not guaranteed.
Head coach Bob Huggins sees things a little differently. After his team’s 82-75 loss on the road at No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday — the closest any team has come to beating the Cowboys on their home floor this season — Huggins was positive about the future.
“We compete,” he said. “People want to say, ‘Well, it’s just like last year.’ It’s not like last year. These guys play like crazy. We’re young, and we’re going to be very good.”
There is some evidence to support the veteran coach’s argument, as well. Although WVU has nine losses on the season, only two — at home against Texas and at Kansas State in back-to-back games — came by double digits. The four losses to Top 25 opponents — No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 20 Gonzaga and No. 11 OSU twice — came by a total of 18 points.
“For all those people who want to say whatever they want to say, we’re really close to being really good,” said Huggins. “We’re a little short on the front line and we really need a backup at point (guard). But I think we’re really close.”
Crucial mistakes, though, have kept WVU from realizing that potential. Against Wisconsin in Cancun, Mexico, the Mountaineers went through one bad stretch and couldn’t dig out of a big hole. At home against Gonzaga, WVU couldn’t hit the big shot in the closing minutes. At home against OSU, Huggins’ club gave up a game-winning 3-pointer with fewer than 20 seconds on the clock, and on Saturday a potential game-tying 3-pointer from the hands of Nathan Adrian missed the mark with under a minute to go in the game.
“We had a wide open look to tie, and it didn’t go down,” said Huggins. “If we’re going to win games like this, those have to go down. That’s not putting blame on anybody. I’m just saying, those have to go down.”
The most important thing now, Huggins said, is for his team to keep moving forward. After the Jan. 11 loss to OSU, the Mountaineers came out flat two days later against Texas and then again five days after that against Kansas State, playing their worst two games of the season.
Huggins said his team can’t have that same sort of hangover when it hits the court tonight against Baylor. The 7 p.m. Eastern tipoff will air live on ESPN2 from the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
“We can’t do what we did the last time we played (the Cowboys) when we really had no enthusiasm when Texas came in,” he explained. “We’ve got to go to Baylor with great enthusiasm and go back and win a game.
“We’re a good enough team to beat virtually anybody. We’ve been so close and haven’t done it. Sometimes it’s hard to figure.”
Baylor (13-6, 1-5 Big 12) is also a team desperate for a win. The Bears started off the season with a 12-1 record that included a win over then-No. 3 Kentucky and a narrow loss to Syracuse. Since that time, though, BU has won just one of its last six games — including a 10-point loss at Texas Tech. Saturday’s 74-60 setback at home against Texas was the Bears’ fourth straight loss.
“At the end of the day, we like this team. We’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep fighting,” said Baylor head coach Scott Drew after Saturday’s loss. “We’d rather finish well than start well, so we’ll see what we can do.”
Baylor is led by senior forward Cory Jefferson, who’s averaging 12.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Junior guard Kenny Chery is averaging 11.1 points and 5.1 assists per outing.
The Mountaineers’ top scorer is Eron Harris. The sophomore guard is averaging 17.6 points per game and had 21 before fouling out with nearly four minutes to play on Saturday. Junior point guard Juwan Staten is averaging 17.3 points to go along with 5.9 assists.
Cam Huffman is sports editor of The Register-Herald. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.