Not second-best team, but worthy of consideration
Even with a 15-game winning streak, West Virginia wasn’t the second-best team in the nation, as the rankings said.
The No. 2 ranking was the loftiest spot in the rankings since 1959, when Jerry West was in the first month of his senior season. The year before, the Mountaineers had ended the regular season with the No. 1 ranking and only one loss.
For any team to be seen as the No. 2 team in the country, and be a bona fide threat to win the national championship, it must show some consistency and have a number of players who are always reliable. That’s not West Virginia. At least not now.
In losing a one-point game at Texas Tech, the Mountaineers didn’t press much at all in the second half, while being outscored by nine points in those 20 minutes by the Red Raiders. West Virginia always says its constant pressure wears away both the energy and resolve of opponents. But the lack of pressure in the second half did neither to Texas Tech.
After the season’s first 17 games, it seems like free throws will decide every close game. And no matter who the Mountaineers see on the road, if they win it will be a close game.
Texas Tech made 24-of-28 free throws. West Virginia had Daxter Miles Jr. foul out and had three players with four fouls and time spent on the bench with those fouls.
There are some players who will never contribute much.
Logan Routt played 11 minutes and did nothing. Maciej Bender has yet to contribute, and he isn’t even an adequate free throw shooter.
Texas Tech knew West Virginia’s personnel. The Red Raiders made sure any player defended by Chase Harler, Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate, Routt and Bender got the ball and then drove to the basket. That strategy was repeatedly rewarded.
Ahmad played 32 minutes in his first game back since being suspended. His many appearances at the free throw line have to produce more than a 60 percent success rate in order for the Mountaineers to beat any conference team on the road.
Expect inconsistency from Lamont West (27 minutes with little production against Texas Tech), Beetle Bolden, Wesley Harris, Miles Jr. and Konate. Miles Jr. has a valued court pressure and shows he’s experienced enough to do well when the Mountaineers are pressing. His perimeter shooting is usually a necessity, but he can be helpful with his half-court defense and calming effect on others.
Miles Jr. can’t have games where he disappears.
Even after a puzzling first half of challenged offense, West Virginia still had a seven-point lead. There was a muddled, one-time 11-point lead in the second half, but Texas Tech was not to be wrecked or made to vary its pregame plans.
The demons caused by making only 39 percent of its field goal attempts and a mostly ineffective press hadn’t ruined the Mountaineers. The uneventful minutes of so many players hadn’t made the Mountaineers miserable.
A one-point loss to a team with a capable coach that was playing on its home court before a sellout crowd of over 15,000 could be seen as a glass half-full.
Be prepared for a long list of close games, especially on the road.
Be prepared for free throws to settle the survivor and the fallen in those many close games.
And then there’s Kentucky, bringing its basket full of freshmen.
There will be one interesting game after another to come through January and February.
It’s goodbye to the No. 2 ranking, but it’s also clear that, even when playing with a fistful of players underachieving, these Mountaineers can withstand withered performances and still win at times.