What a difference two games can make. Seems like just last week we had half the fan base ready to do a nose dive off the top of the Coliseum. Oh right, that actually was just last week. As usual, Huggs hit the nail on the head:
Bob Huggins: "There are some really non-athletic, overweight people that jump on and off (the #WVU) bandwagon so much I'm afraid they're going to get hurt."— Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247) February 6, 2018
To be honest though, it's kind of hard to blame anybody - dropping 5 out of 6 is enough to make even the staunchest of fans flinch. I'd like to think that I'm about as diehard as they come, and even I panic-wrote 1000 words about all of our problems after the Iowa State game. Two games on, though? Let's just say it felt as I was writing it and I'm glad I never got around to posting.
And that's not to say we don't have some very glaring problems - we lack the depth to press/rebound as effectively as we have in years past, we don't have many (any?) good passers, and we've received some very inconsistent performances from guys we're counting on for more than that.
You know what though? A 30-point K-State beatdown here, a cathartic regular season sweep of College Basketball's Crown Prince there, and we're right back in the thick of things in the Big 12, just half a game behind Texas Tech and Kansas with games against both left to play. Technically we still control our own destiny.
So what's changed? Nothing major, really, except that we managed to not blow yet another double-digit lead Monday night. However, Huggs has made one or two tweaks recently that may have sparked our turnaround, and fortunately they're somewhat related to the problems I touched on above.
First, our depth. The simple fact of the matter is that for that last few years we’ve been able to go 9 or 10 deep, and this year we just can’t. And unfortunately it hasn't been for lack of trying - we still have 10 guys averaging at least 10 minutes per game on the year, but the drop in quality after the first few off the bench is significant.
So how do you combat depth issues? Simple: you shorten your rotation. And Huggs has - only 8 guys got more than 10 minutes against Kansas State, and on Monday we took it one step further, with only 9 guys seeing playing time and only 7 playing double-digit minutes. This adjustment has predictably had a positive impact on our overall level of play (the less minutes that bad players play, the better), and it's something that I think we should continue to emphasize pending health and foul trouble. January is the time for experimentation; February is when we need to start settling on who we can go to war with in March.
Unfortunately, there's not much we can tweak to solve the second issue, but our lack of meaningful ball movement is in my opinion the most undertalked-about ongoing issue with our basketball team. Consider that last year we finished 6th nationally in assists, and think about all the easy buckets that we got from simple cuts and box-to-box switch screens. This year we're all the way back in 78th, and the only easy buckets we get seem to come from steals in the backcourt. Seriously, we have to be near the top of the country in possessions where we work our asses off just to get a desperation 3 at the end of the shot clock, and it's not because guys aren't open, it's because guys are either unwilling or unable to see them and get them the ball. And like I said, I don't how we fix it. I guess Huggs can "gently suggest" that they pass the ball more, but by and large these guys are who they are at this point, and no amount of coaching is going to turn a shoot-first guy like Teddy Allen into a facilitator like Nate Adrian. I think we just have to hope that shrinking the bench will help some in this regard, as well.
Finally though, and probably most importantly, our guys seem to be coming out of their collective slump and have simply started playing better again.
Not to beat a dead horse here, but after the goose eggs he put up in back-to-back losses to TCU and Kentucky I was starting to wonder if Esa was, in fact, the source of all our problems. However, he finally seems to be getting his legs under him and emphasized that resurgence with a vintage one-handed slam late in Monday night's win. He’s still probably not quite where we need him to be, averaging just 10 points and 5 boards per game, but he's shooting with confidence and has definitely had a little extra pep in his step since being reinserted into the starting lineup last Wednesday.
Lamont West has been much better over the last week, as well. He finally looks to be getting some confidence back after not making a shot for what felt like the better part of two months, and though we hopefully don't need him to drop 17 every night, his ability to 3-and-D-and-rebound is going to be crucial as we head into the home stretch.
The lone piece of the puzzle that hasn't quite fallen into place yet is Dax Miles. Miles' energy and athleticism have been an important part of our defensive identity for atleast three years now, but unfortunately his inconsistency at the other end continues to be just as big of a factor. Miles is actually averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and free throw %, but his questionable decision making, especially with regards to his shot selection, still makes him an offensive liability at times. His defensive contribution means that he still probably needs to be a part of our crunch-time 5, but we need him to be more consistent offensively if we're going to make a run next month.
And to that end, I still think it's really hard to not like where we are for early February. I know it's probably shocking for some that Bob Huggins, with his 700+ career wins, might actually have a method to his madness, but I think he's got his guys right where he wants them. So strap in. The next few months are about to be one hell of a ride.