WVU v. Baylor: Who can handle these truths?

February 28, 2015 by Mike Casazza

We’re live at the Ferrell Center, where Baylor’s path to history just got a little easier. West Virginia’s Juwan Staten will not play today. He injured his left knee when he got clipped in the middle of the second half of Tuesday’s Texas game, didn’t practice Thursday and presumably Friday and won’t go against the Bears.

Baylor is on a roll with three straight wins, including one of the Big 12 season’s best Wednesday at Iowa State to end the Cyclones’ 21-game winning streak at the Hilton Coliseum. A win today also gives the program back-to-back victories against ranked teams for the first time ever. That’s lunacy. Scott Drew’s made two Elite Eights and a Sweet Sixteen (I guess that’s three Sweet Sixteens) and played for the Big 12 title last year and hasn’t beaten ranked teams in succession.

So that’s on the line today and, by the way, the Bears are only two games out of the Big 12 championship race. They’ll need some help to win it, but winning out and getting their claws on a share of the title isn’t impossible.

The Mountaineers came here with control of their championship vision, and that hasn’t change even if it’s now out of Staten’s hands. Winning out guarantees them no worse than a share of the title. A loss today makes it unlikely and makes Tuesday’s game at No. 8 Kansas a must-win, so this isn’t a do-or-die occasion if hardware is the goal, which it is. This is nevertheless significant because Tuesday could be … wait for it … The Biggest Regular-Season Game in the Bob Huggins Era.

How does WVU get there? Surviving TCU without Staten is one thing, and Staten’s long-term health is quite another because of the quick turnarounds in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. Jevon Carter will start for Staten, and Tarik Phillip has to be ready.

The onus, though, seems to be on Jon Holton, and there’s a certain symmetry with today’s game. It was the first Baylor game, a brutal 18-point loss that, if we’re being honest, wasn’t that close, when he shot and missed a 3-pointer, got pulled and was informed along the way to his seat that he would not shoot another 3 in a game until he’d figured out his 8 for 46 conundrum in the gym.

He didn’t take a 3 for three games, tried and missed one against Oklahoma State and then went 2 for 2 against Texas. He’s been better in this three-game winning streak (17 points, 19 rebounds, six assists and just one turnover) and he’s played 22, 11 (?) and 26 minutes.

Minutes matter. When Holton isn’t in foul trouble and is effective, he plays more. When he plays more, WVU plays its game with greater ease. In WVU’s losses, he’s shooting 28.1 percent and is 1 for 10 from 3-point range and he’s totaled 25 points (4.2 ppg). In WVU’s wins, he’s shooting 51.7 percent and is 9 for 39 from 3-point range and has totaled 196 points (8.9 ppg).

That seems logical, right? Here’s where the light bulb goes off, I think. In losses, he averages 5.7 rebounds. In wins, he averaged 5.9 rebounds. In losses he averaged 1.2 steals, in wins he averages 1.7 steals. Those are fairly close.

But in losses, he plays 17.8 minutes. In wins, he plays 20.8 minutes. Three minutes is a bunch of possessions with the way WVU plays and a bunch of missed opportunities for Holton to impact a game.

Project his averages out to 40 minutes and it’s 12.8 rebounds in losses and 11.3 in wins and 3.7 steals in wins and 2.7 steals in losses … which is to say he’s always been an active player. Active players need to be active, and that’s especially true for Holton. He’s not a great or even good shooter, but he’s so energetic and so effective as a rebounder and defender, when he can stay tucked in, that WVU really loses something when he can’t play.

His offensive wanderings cut into his playing time, but it forced him to re-evaluate his game and focus on the things that make him better so he could rationalize his presence on the floor.

But here’s the truest truth about Holton: He was tired of having basketball taken away from him. If this is a return to form, or perhaps more accurately the display of new form, it’s a dynamite response to the latest dilemma.

“I’m hungry, man,” he said. “I wanted to play last year. I was ready to play last year. Last year was hard, to tell the truth. I’ve been ready since I got to Morgantown and I haven’t been able to play to my potential. But I play hard. I hustle. That’s all I can say.

“All Coach Huggins really wants me to do is rebound and hustle and play hard and bring energy, and the rest of my game will come. I’m a capable shooter. I can finish. The key is playing hard.”

Holton played 40 minutes and scored 15 points in an overtime win against TCU on Jan. 24. He would go scoreless three times, play fewer than 10 minutes twice and foul out once before reappearing against Texas. He worked for shots underneath the basket and his three baskets inside the 3-point line were a dunk, a hook shot and a put back, that being a critical score after one of his four offensive rebounds.

He moved against the zone defense, he defended the tallest Longhorns in the post and earned 28 minutes on the floor, his second-best total in conference play. The 3s were merely bonuses.

“That’s not what Jon is,” Huggins said. “Jon is what he was (Tuesday). He’s a guy who scores around the goal, a guy who could be an absolutely terrific offensive rebounder and, I think if he continues to work at it, a guy who should be able to bounce it at the rim.

“But if he continues to work at it and becomes a more consistent shooter from 3, that helps us spread them. It’s hard when they stand everyone in the lane and say, ‘Go ahead, we don’t care if you shoot it or not.’”

I care if you proceed …

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Speaking of assistants, or assistance …

February 27, 2015 by Mike Casazza

…and we do seem to do that quite a bit around here, what with all that turnover on the football staff and our questions now about who fills Tom Bradley’s space in the media guide, so let’s look in another corner of the athletic department.

WVU’s fundraising arm, the Mountaineer Athletic Club, lost two major gift officers last spring, right before the end of the fiscal year. The overall number for the year checked in at about $20 million, not as high as it has been before and not as high as the MAC wants it to be. This is not to say one has everything to do with the other, but rather to show that turnover matters wherever it occurs.

The MAC filled its spots in the July and hit the fiscal road running. Through the first seven months of this fiscal year, the MAC has set four single-month records and is past record-setting paces for its annual fund and overall giving.

“We lost two guys who had built strong relationships with donors in the areas they were working, and replacing that immediately is impossible,” Borman said. “We were fully staffed in August and had people back on the road building those relationships again.”

It’s much like when a football program loses an assistant coach to another school. The team has to find a new assistant who can coach the position, but also has to find a way to make sure the team keeps recruiting the area the departing coach worked.

WVU hired M.G. Bailey from George Washington and put him in charge of Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan New York area. Jacob Kirkham came to WVU from Utah and works throughout Virginia and south Florida, but he’s also spending time in places he knows in California.

Ben Murray, the associate athletic director in charge of major gifts, covers Texas. Wheeling native Kevin Miller, the assistant athletic director in charge of annual fund, came to WVU from Georgia State and handles Atlanta. Mike Gilstorf manages Phoenix and north Florida.

All five have their own regions in West Virginia.

“We really have a history in a majority of the areas that have a high concentration of alumni,” Borman said. “If the WVU Foundation or the Alumni Association suddenly realizes we’ve got a lot more donors in a certain area we haven’t been too active in, we’ll be out there trying to add new areas. Moving to the Big 12, we focused a little more on Texas and the additional opportunities to reach out to donors and give them opportunities they haven’t had before.”

Not addition by subtraction, not devastation, either

February 27, 2015 by Mike Casazza

We glossed over this Tuesday night and in the days that followed, but Tom Bradley’s the new defensive coordinator at UCLA, as announced by a press release from the Bruins athletic department … and I still find it odd there isn’t one line in there about his work at WVU. Just weird, but, hey, no big deal, and Bradley bid farewell in his own way.

Exactly who and what we thought he was before and we saw him to be during his season with the Mountaineers. Yet there’s an apprehension here and there about how this affects, even hurts WVU and Dana Holgorsen, who, of course, has lost 12 assistant coaches in four offseasons (Ready? Jeff Casteel, David Lockwood, Bill Kirelawich, Steve Dunlap, Daron Roberts, Bill Bedenbaugh, Robert Gillespie, Jake Spavital, Erik Slaughter, Keith Patterson Shannon Dawson and Tom Bradley.)

And since this is sports, people are going to work with definites and care only for winners and losers. That’s fine. But I’m having a hard time thinking of any losers here.

Y2Yay!

February 26, 2015 by Mike Casazza

The WWF’s first undisputed champion, the purveyor of some of sports entertainment’s best gimmicks, Chris Jericho is also the front man for Fozzy. For those reasons, and so many others, I have no issue whatsoever with him taking aim at one of our favorite songs. (Warning: Ear muffs.)

‘Let’s get some money, let’s go home’

February 26, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Seeing as if I didn’t have a functioning laptop Tuesday night and couldn’t do things like share my real-time predictions about a switch to a zone or inevitable coach of the year columns — you’ll have to take my word for it! — I feel like we omitted a fun part of that experience.

The crowd was great, but also very aware of the history between these two teams. There was a Holy Crap cadence for much of the first half, as though no one could or would believe what was happening, and that paired nicely with the Aw Crap vibe present every time Texas made a basket. WVU would lead by as many as 18 points and made 10 of its first 10 shots, but the Mountaineers fell in love with the 3-point line and then missed 12 of 16 shots. The Longhorns, meanwhile, shot like 75 percent for almost 30 minutes and made a lengthy 23-6 run in which every swish or slam was followed by a pained gasp from the crowd.

It was so great, and it continued after the 1-1-3 one and a 13-2 run that included a mind bottling Jon Holton 3. Texas wasn’t done, though, and got close thanks to some more brown paper bag shots. The damage was never done, though, and the Mountaineers quietly finished 20 for 23 from the foul  line. The 87 percent is the best of the season and powered by Devin Williams (!) going 8 for 10, including 5 for 6 in the final 1:18, when he was on the floor, but also getting the ball against the pressure.

The turning point

February 26, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Remember when WVU Against a Zone Defense was a Thing? I think I do, but I’m not certain. It could have happened, sure, but given the way the Mountaineers have performed against zones lately, I think we can use a lowercase t now.

There was a time when teams like Baylor or Texas could prevail with a 2-3 as a go-to defense, and there were times when teams like Kansas State or Iowa State … or TCU or Texas Tech … would throw it out to and have success because WVU would have struggles.

That seems to be in the past now, and WVU has to feel pretty good about what it’s doing offensively as it heads to No. 19 Baylor — piping hot, by the way — and its 2-3 zone, if for no other reason than getting Texas, of all teams, to bail Tuesday night.

There was also a time when many thought this would be a long season, and that remains true, because 31 regular-season games and 18 weeks is a long time and as such ample time for a team to figure out how to do a few things or how to do a few things better. Look at WVU’s improved passing and avoidance of deadly errors against a zone, to say nothing of unveiling a zone of its own, and witness little pieces come together here and there over the past two weeks and you get the idea the Mountaineers are improving at the most ideal time.

“We’re getting better, we’re getting closer, but it’s a big jump, a bigger jump certainly than what they realized and probably everybody else realized,” coach Bob Huggins said. “I think they’re getting better, and those guys are starting to understand things better. The practices are better because they understand what they’re doing. We don’t have to spend so much time trying to over-explain things to them.”

The first game against Texas this season, a 77-50 loss on Jan. 17, was the worst the Mountaineers have played. They set season lows in points, baskets, shooting percentage, assists and points off turnovers, but there was one problem at the root of all their struggles.

It was something Huggins could point to and discuss with his players and something they could accept was out of character.

“We watched the film and looked at our effort out in Texas, and the effort from when we were in Texas to here is totally night and day,” said forward Devin Williams, who had 14 points Tuesday after totaling 13 in the first four games of his career against the Longhorns. “You could tell the difference, you could feel the energy from the bench and see the focus from everybody.”

The Mountaineers had 14 baskets in the first half Tuesday. They had 13 in the first game against Texas. Eleven of those 14 baskets came with an assist, and nine players had at least one. There were only five assists last month. Fourteen of the first 17 points came in the paint, and the attack inside forced Texas to adjust. WVU responded by scoring 12 of the next 16 points from 3-point range.

Proof of their progress came when Texas ditched its 2-3 zone in the first half, and then when the Mountaineers had to change tactics and abandon its full-court press in the second half to play a 1-1-3 zone they hadn’t shown all season.

WVU and the emotional assist

February 26, 2015 by Mike Casazza

NickWince_MMORAES

As many of you may have already heard, No. 20 West Virginia did a very important thing Tuesday night to alter the course of its season and calibrate all the talking points about this team.

Oh, and the Mountaineers beat Texas, too.

Along the way, WVU signed Nicholas Wince, a 5-year-old with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and had him spend the day with the team as part of the always awesome Make-A-Wish campaign. Wince spent the day with the team, before and after the game, participating in the shootaround in the afternoon, signing a scholarship after passing the test, joining the the layup line before the game and finally visiting the team after the win in the locker room, where things got crazy.

Jon Holton, for the damn win.

Bob Huggins always says he’s got “good guys,” and you assume it’s just because they get along with one another and don’t want to let teammates down and go to certain lengths to do the right things. You don’t really see it in action, because so much of the team and student-athlete experience is private, no matter how many interviews they do, no matter how many games they play on national television.

This is an exception, a wonderful exception in which the Mountaineers seemed not only proud to have done what they did, but also the beneficiaries of an experience that was supposed to help someone else and ended up rubbing off on them, too.

Dustin Garrison kicks out

February 25, 2015 by Mike Casazza

The record-holder for freshman single-game rushing is leaving West Virginia at the end of the semester, and he knows what people are thinking: The Mountaineers are way over the scholarship limit and the running back room is crowded. The coaching staff probably forced him out to create space for someone else.

There are a few problems with that, Garrison said. For starters, he’s grateful for the opportunity he got at WVU, the only Division I school that offered him a scholarship, and while things could have gone better and he believes  he deserved to play more, he said he doesn’t hate his coaches or have anything against the staff.

He’s also been thinking about this for a while. A long while.

“I knew before the bowl game I was going to do it,” said Garrison, who carried the ball just 20 times last season and not at all in the final three games. “(Tuesday) was the day I finally decided I wanted everyone to know about it.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about since basically my sophomore year, but I always told myself to fight through it. Things never really went how I thought they would, and through time I started to think it was time for me to make my own decisions and do what’s best for me.”

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No. 20 WVU 71, Texas 64

February 25, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Well, the monkey’s off the back, right?

Not exactly.

Play like he did Tuesday — forget 12 points, four rebounds, three assists and five steals; his heads-up press break and the long inbound pass from Jevon Carter for a dunk late, a role reversal from that happened late against TCU, something Miles calls “Love at First Sight,” that was enormous — and you can use whatever language you want.

Bob Huggins doesn’t believe his team needed that win for more than better odds of winning the conference title and better seeding in the NCAA Tournament, and he didn’t believe his team had a mental hurdle it could only overcome by beating Texas.

Respect due to the presumptive Big 12 coach of the year, but his players players spoke quite differently after the win. Here’s what struck me: The postgame interviews included Miles, Devin Williams, Jevon Carter and Jon Holton. Only Williams played in last season’s three losses to the Longhorns. Holton was on the team and was pained to watch while unable to help. Miles and Carter were months away from their first dose of Texas.

Each of them said something to “The frog’s off the back,” and that would mean one way or another the first-year players were clear on what it would mean to beat Texas.

Realistically, what’s it mean? WVU is one good Saturday away from … yikes … the biggest regular-season game in Huggins’ time with the Mountaineers, but for the time being, it means there aren’t a lot of questions left about this team.

The Mountaineers had lost the past four games to Texas (17-11, 6-9) by 11, 17, 17 and 27 points and trailed by at least 21 points in each. They trailed just once this time, and that 2-0 lead lasted 31 seconds.

“We were down just two weeks ago, and there were a lot of ‘buts’ and questions marks in the air,” forward Devin Williams said. “I don’t know who’s been on the road with us as far as traveling and interviewing us, but I said we were going to be all right.

“There’s a whole different feel this year, a whole different team. All I can say from this game is, let’s just say this is a new West Virginia team, and we’ve proven that we are a different team from last year.”

WVU v. Texas: Invoke the fifth

February 24, 2015 by Mike Casazza

Devin Williams has had a lot to cheer about in just shy of two seasons of college basketball at West Virginia. His performances against Texas? Not exactly bright spots. Williams knows it, too, and he’s made comments to the effect of “This time will be different!” between the second and third and third and fourth games.

On the cusp of the fifth, he’s seemed to tone it down, saying that No. 20 Wests Virginia wants Texas, which makes sense for a team that believes it’s on the uptick, but has had it’s number taken by the Longhorns the past four times the teams have played. But it wasn’t dagger-wielding and vengeful. It was traced with respect and acknowledgments of the past. He knows the score, and he understands that he’s probably made it a bit too personal in the past.

“I think I definitely have, but it’s the competitive spirit in me,” Williams said. “Last year, I didn’t know a lot of what was going on as far as the Big 12 opposition and things like that. I was just trying to challenge myself. I haven’t been too successful with that, but I have to keep challenging myself, and the only way to get better is to figure that out.”

Williams has never predicted a victory against Texas. This is not Pittsnogle v. Marshall. He’s merely vowed to play better and not to repeat past performances, and that hasn’t proved to be true as of yet. And so it wasn’t surprising 1) that we asked Williams about Texas right the heck after beating Oklahoma State and 2) he didn’t hide his desire to play the game and get that line right on his resume. He tempered his competitive spirit this time, but the point remained.

“I do that from time to time,” he said. “That’s just me being excited out there to play against those guys. I need to be just more toned down about it and go out there and play ball. Sometimes I go out there and try to do too much.”

There are worse transgressions for college players, never mind ones literally in the middle of a team’s plan. Safe to say Bob Huggins would have in the past few seasons liked a couple more players who took things personally and wanted it too badly and even tried to do too much to make it happen the way it happens in their heads. We forget Williams is tying his Nikes and slipping on the Rec Specs for the 60th time tonight, and he’s had to learn on a slope as a critical figure in the post all while playing with his back to the basket for the first time at a level even closely resembling this one.

Pardon him for trying to be enthusiastic about the challenge, the opportunity, the privilege and endeavoring to right how he feels he and his teammates have been and have done wrong.

“If I was lucky enough to play professionally and get some money, people don’t tend to have the same passion about what they do, so this is mostly about me going out there trying to get some respect,” Williams said. “That’s all it is for me. I’m trying to get respect. If I have your respect, I feel better about myself. I don’t feel like they respect us as a team, so we’re going to try to go out there and get it. They’re a good team. We can’t take that away from them. It’s about respect at the end of the day.”

Respect the blog …

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