In their inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference, the West Virginia men's basketball team stumbled their way to a 13-19 finish, ending the season on a seven game losing streak. That, coupled with the turnover of transfer Aaric Murray and Jabarie Hinds, kept expectations for the Mountaineers in the 2013-2014 season a relative unknown. Eron Harris showed promise, while transfer Juwan Staten had star potential.
So when the Big 12 preseason rankings came out, there was little surprise the Mountaineers were predicted to finish seventh in the conference. Who knew what to expect from a young team with little chemistry from the previous season?
The chemistry issues were evident early in the season. The Mountaineers lost a tough game on the road to Virginia Tech. They battled back in Cancun, losing a close game to always gritty Wisconsin, 70-63. The Mounties looked to be coming together quicker than expected and were playing good basketball. But they followed the Cancun Challenge with a loss to Missouri in the Big 12/SEC Showdown. And then, in a rematch from last season's opener to Gonzaga in which the Mountaineers got thumped, they lost at home to Mark Few and Co., 80-76.
Shortly after this, the grueling Big 12 season began for the Mountaineers, and they maneuvered their way through with wins against Baylor, Kansas State, and then #21 ranked Oklahoma. The Mountaineers also lost two close games to highly talented Oklahoma State, once in overtime. WVU also lost a tough road contest to Kansas, staying close throughout the majority of the game before bowing out at the end and losing by 14.
After this stretch, the Mountaineers were sitting at 6-5 in Big 12 play, one game above .500. The next game on the schedule was a home matchup with Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim and #11 Iowa State. A huge win at home could really propel the Mountaineers forward, moving them to 7-5 in the Big 12 and boosting their confidence down the stretch.
The start of the game was ideal for the Mountaineers. Terry Henderson came out, knocked down three 3-pointer's, added another basket, and before you could blink, the Mountaineers held a double digit advantage over Iowa State. This game was also a coming out party of sorts for Remi Dibo. Dibo knocked down six 3-pointers on his way to 20 points. Dibo was also largely responsible in shutting down Melvin Ejim. Juwan Staten threatened for a triple double, with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. It was an all around team effort offensively and defensively for the Mountaineers. They controlled Iowa State from the tip, held Ejim to 4 points, and scored 100 for the first time since beating Georgia Southern in November. After the game, Mountaineer players went into the student section to cheer with fans. Spirits were high in the Coliseum.
It was the highest output for the Mountaineers all season. The win brought optimism to program and fans really held high hopes for the remainder of the season. There were big games left to play against Baylor, Kansas, at Oklahoma, and two against Texas. But for the night, the Mountaineers rejoiced. It was the best 40 minutes of basketball the Mountaineers played all season.
"We just stuck to the game plan," Dibo said. "We couldn't let them make a run to come back. We knew from the past every time we had a lead, we had let teams come back, and we knew we couldn't let that happen."
The Mountaineers were beginning to show maturity and their experience carried them. From here, a tough road game at Texas awaited, followed by games against Baylor and a rematch at Iowa State. Coming off their best game of the season, who would have thought the Mountaineers would have followed it up with three clunkers?
They lost those next three games, all by double digits, and no less than 13. The Mountaineers were dominated on the glass by Texas, let Baylor run away in the second half, and then Iowa State exacted revenge on the Mountaineers in their own house. So did the Mountaineers become overconfident after moving to 7-5? They were exposed by their lack of toughness inside, being out-rebounded in all three games. This was exposed again in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament against Texas, as WVU was crushed, only scoring 14 points total in the first half.
So why was Iowa State the turning point of the season? Why did the Mountaineers play so well in holding down Iowa State, only to follow it up by losing three straight to fall to 7-8 and off the NCAA bubble? Part of it has to do with scheduling. Any team is going to have a tough time traveling to Texas, only to come home against Baylor and then hit the road again to Iowa State. Also, as pointed out earlier, these are three teams with size on the inside, something the Mountaineers struggled with all season.
WVU coach Bob Huggins recognized the Mountaineers lack of an inside threat, as Devin Williams received more playing time down the stretch, recording 30 plus minutes against Kansas and Oklahoma, and 28 minutes in the Big 12 tournament against Texas. Another part is the maturity. The Mountaineers are a young team, and defeating a talented Iowa State team gave them a sense of confidence that almost blurred into arrogance. They relied heavily on the three ball, did not play lock-down defense , and didn't rebound; all traits that a successful Bob Huggins coached team displays.
The Mountaineers bounced back, winning on Senior Day (even though they had no seniors on the roster) against Kansas in front of the only home sellout crowd of the season, even after allowing Andrew Wiggins to go off for 41.
But the Mountaineers never fully recovered from that three game losing streak, finishing 17-15, 9-9 in the Big 12, and then losing in the first round to Texas.
Prior to the start of the season, if you had told Mountaineer fans that they would finish .500 in the Big 12, 7th in the conference with a first round NIT matchup at Georgetown on Tuesday night, the majority would have taken it with the unknown that surrounded the program. Halfway through the season it seemed an NCAA tournament seed would be inevitable, only to finish 2-4 and end up on the outside of the bubble. It's just like a WVU team to lead its fans on a roller coaster ride all season.
The win over Iowa State was one of the high points of a bounce back season for the Mountaineers. That was followed by one of the lowest, a three game losing streak in Big 12 play. With the team's core coming back next season, and the addition of Elijah Macon to the roster, the Mounties will be a force in the Big 12 next year. But for now, because of overconfidence, and a lack of size and maturity, WVU will be looking to succeed in the NIT, in hopes of springing them with momentum into the off-season. The Big 12 brought home the NIT Championship last year, after Baylor went on a run and beat Iowa in the Finals. Here's to hoping the Mountaineers make it two years in a row for the Big 12 Conference.