Something needs to change for West Virginia.
Saturday’s 83-76 loss to Kentucky, which involved a massive second half collapse, marked the team’s fourth loss in the last five games. It seems like ages ago when the Mountaineers were the No. 2 team in the country (even though it was just earlier this month) and on top of the world.
Now, they are likely to drop out of the top 10 in the country. Maybe even the top 15 or top 20.
This team definitely deserves to be ranked, though. They’ve beaten teams like Oklahoma and Virginia, with the latter coming off a huge victory over Duke and is currently the No. 2 team in the country, sustaining only one loss this season (at WVU). And they are still 16-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big 12, which is the best conference in college basketball from top to bottom.
But the team has struggled mightily to play a complete 40 minutes recently. At Texas Tech, it watched an 11-point lead slip away. Against Kansas, it let a 16-point lead slip away. At TCU, it let a seven-point lead slip away. Against Kentucky, it let a 17-point lead slip away.
What’s been the problem?
For one, the offense loses its mojo after halftime. A perfect example came Saturday versus Kentucky. It fell just short of shooting 50 percent from the field (16-of-34) in the first half.
Then the offense sputtered. It hit just 11 of its 34 attempts (32 percent), including a mere three of its 12 shots from three-point range. Shots simply were not falling, and head coach Bob Huggins said his team could not play offense.
They even got outrebounded by 16 in the second half alone and allowed a number of open threes, especially to Kevin Knox, who finished with 34 points and a 5-of-8 mark from deep, helping the Wildcats outscore them 50-28 during the final 20 minutes.
"I thought we tried to run offense the first half," Huggins said. "We did a pretty good job of running offense, but then we didn’t run offense in the second half."
That’s been a recurring theme in these losses. The offense loses motion. It does not hit shots. It settles for more shots towards the end of the shot clock, and it heavily relies on star point guard Jevon Carter.
Carter is the focal point of the offense, and without him hitting shots, who else steps up? Over the last five games, he averages 21.2 points, 5.6 assists and 38 minutes. He also scored 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the first half Saturday to help the Mountaineers boast a sizeable halftime lead.
However, the Kentucky defense buckled down. He went just 3-of-10 shooting in the second half, and few players stepped up offensively.
The only players that have stepped up on a consistent basis recently are sophomore forward Sagaba Konate, who swats away nearly every shot in sight defensively and can score down low, and redshirt sophomore guard Beetle Bolden. Konate is averaging 12 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.4 blocks during this recent lull, while Bolden put forth a 19-point display in 19 minutes and a 17-point effort in 17 minutes, backed by lights-out efforts from long range.
Is this fixable? Yes, of course. But does WVU have a clear answer to fix the post-halftime issues at this moment?
"We haven’t figured it out yet," Carter said.
Maybe lineup changes are coming. Huggins alluded to that during Saturday’s postgame press conference. He said there are some players he can’t trust. He mentioned how one player is 2-of-22 shooting at the three-point line, and although no player has that statistic right now, that’s the frustration level kicking in.
Maybe Bolden cracks the starting lineup or gets more minutes off the bench? His recent performances seem to indicate that as a possibility.
"If you let him shoot, he’s going to make it," Huggins said. "He’s really been our spark off the bench. I mean, I guess we probably need to start him and play him more minutes."
Huggins also said sophomore guard Chase Harler should play more. He makes a lot of hustle plays, something Huggins loves. And why shouldn’t he?
Seeing more offensive contributions from other players like junior forward Esa Ahmad, senior guard Daxter Miles and redshirt sophomore Lamont West will be critical.
In Ahmad’s first two games of the season against Texas Tech and Kansas, he scored a combined 33 points in 62 minutes, hitting more than half his shots. Since then, Ahmad has scored a combined eight points. He’s been held scoreless the last two games on 0-of-12 shooting.
Miles has shot a combined 17-of-51 in the last five games, reaching the double-digit plateau twice. West has gone 8-of-28 shooting during that span, putting up scoring numbers of three, seven, two, 11 and five points.
"He didn’t play very well," Huggins said of Ahmad. "I don’t determine playing time, they do...I play guys that I think are going to help us win the most."
What this team certainly needs to do is look back at the Texas game. That was its one win during this five-game stretch, and everything seemed to click.
It put together a complete 40 minutes. It shot 46 percent from the field and 52 percent from beyond the arc en route to an 86-51 throttling of the Longhorns.
"Our energy level has got to stay the same throughout the whole game, and I believe it was the Texas game where we played all 40 minutes," Bolden said. "It showed on the court."
Changes are definitely on the horizon. When a team that looked to be perhaps the best in college basketball not too long ago goes into a time like this, that’s what is going to happen.
It does not look good. But this can be fixed. Remember last year, when WVU blew a number of second half leads during conference play?
What happened with that team? They played in the Big 12 Championship. They went to the Sweet 16, and if for a couple more made shots, ends up in the Elite Eight and possibly the Final Four.
"This is behind us now and we’ve just got to focus on the Big 12 Conference now," Bolden said. "We’ve still got a shot for that. We’ve just got come ready and prepare for each and every game like it’s our last."
WVU’s second half stats in last five games:
- at Texas Tech: Outscored 41-33, 33 percent shooting (31 percent from long range), 7 turnovers, 3 forced turnovers, 16-10 rebounding advantage
- vs. Kansas: Outscored by 43-25, 36 percent shooting (8 percent from long range), 11 turnovers, 4 forced turnovers, 20-14 rebounding advantage
- vs. Texas: 54-29 scoring advantage, 66 percent shooting (73 percent from long range), 7 turnovers, 6 forced turnovers, 21-10 rebounding advantage
- at TCU: Outscored 47-40, 31 percent shooting (19 percent from long range), 7 turnovers, 8 forced turnovers, outrebounded 27-22
- vs. Kentucky: Outscored 50-28, 32 percent shooting (25 percent from long range), 3 turnovers, 5 forced turnovers, outrebounded 29-13