West Virginia Basketball: Don’t Sleep On Mountaineers As March Madness Nears

    West Virginia basketball is flying under the radar, but don't sleep on this year's Mountaineers as March Madness nears.

    February 16, 2016

    They somehow fly beneath the radar, these Mountaineers. They’re a top-10 team, a ballclub that owns wins over a No. 1, a No. 13, and a No. 15 team.

    Bob Huggins has built a national championship contender, and nobody seems to notice.

    West Virginia gets its respect in the polls, ranking No. 10 in one, No. 11 in the other. It sits at 20-5 overall, 9-3 in the Big 12, basically in a tie with Kansas in the league standings. Three of those losses have come to the likes of Virginia and Oklahoma and the Jayhawks.

    This is a team that doesn’t lose games it shouldn’t.

    So why isn’t anybody giving West Virginia the credit it deserves?

    It could come down to style points, especially on offense.

    Nobody complains about the Mountaineers’ defense, nor should they. WVU gives up less than 65 points again, but more importantly, the Mountaineers are forcing more than 19 turnovers a game. That leads to easy transition baskets and helps WVU control the tempo every time out.

    Teams have to adjust to Huggy’s guys, not the other way around.

    So why aren’t they mentioned in the national title talk?

    Maybe it’s because Huggins has never won one. Let’s face it, if this was a coach who had already cut down the nets once or twice, West Virginia would be in the thick of the discussion. But Huggins has come up short, which makes people a little shy about throwing WVU into the mix.

    The bigger key might come on offense. Defense may win championships, but you still have to score points to win games.

    It isn’t that WVU struggles offensively. The Mountaineers are averaging 80.0 points a night and have averaged a margin of victory that is at double digits. WVU blows you out. They don’t squeak by.

    But two areas really leave West Virginia a step behind. One is the team’s 3-point shooting, or lack thereof. They shoot just 31.2 percent from behind the arc as a team, one of the worst percentages in the country. Then, when they get fouled, they struggle from the line. WVU makes 66.1 percent of its free throws, and when they’re in a late-game situation, Hack-a-Mountaineer can be an effective tool.

    Look at WVU’s losses. There was a 16-point loss vs. Virginia, a team that plays a different style of defense but is just as suffocating. The Mountaineers managed just 54 points. In a loss to Texas Jan. 20, they scored just 49 points and fell 56-49 to Shaka Smart’s frantic defense.

    When WVU is taken out of its comfort zone offensively, when it is forced to play a halfcourt game and the lane is shut down, the Mountaineers are more than vulnerable.

    It’s easier said than done, but it’s a blueprint.

    Overcoming that issue will be critical down the stretch for WVU, and that march to the tourney starts Tuesday at Texas. It starts a huge stretch for the Mountaineers, who play the Longhorns before returning home to take on Oklahoma and Iowa State. Two players, Jaysean Paige and Daxter Miles Jr., handle the bulk of the offensive load from the perimeter, but they’ve been the vanguard of the defense, and weary legs can be a problem this time of year.

    Devin Williams works inside and knows his limitations, which is key. The fact he doesn’t try to do too much keeps turnovers down and doesn’t create opportunities for opponents.

    Both of those facts will be huge vs. Texas, a team that took WVU out of its game in the first meeting, leading Huggins to say his guys weren’t “mentally into what we were doing.”

    WVU lost the first time around vs. the Longhorns despite dominating on the glass 49-33, but going 3-of-21 from 3-point range at home was a killer. Making just 8-of-23 free throws didn’t help.

    West Virginia is a solid February team with the potential to be dangerous in March. If the Mountaineers are going to grab sleeper status, the change in reputation will start Tuesday in Austin. Beating Texas on its homecourt and picking up a statement game vs. a defensive team will do wonders for the players’ confidence and could finally open some eyes on a national level.

    West Virginia is playing for respect, and that, folks, can be dangerous.

    Bracketology: Projecting NCAA Tournament Field Of 68, Week 15

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