Fresh start awaits WVU hoops in Kansas City

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When the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament begins tonight, Bob Huggins wants his team to play with a “shock the world” mentality.

“Let’s go win four games,” the head coach of the Mountaineers said. “It’s been done before. It’s been done before when the odds were totally against it being done, so let’s go play.” 

After advancing to the tournament championship game in each of the last three seasons, West Virginia will need to win four times in four days to reach the final this time. That quest begins tonight with a clash against seven-seed Oklahoma at 9 ET.

In the lead up to their tournament opener, players have agreed that the postseason marks a fresh start for a team that has struggled throughout the season. The Mountaineers finished in last place in the Big 12, they’ve endured lengthy losing streaks and they haven’t won a game away from the WVU Coliseum since November. 

But freshman guard Jordan McCabe thinks that if the team can put those negatives out of mind, WVU can be “dangerous.”

“Us in the locker room have been talking that a very dangerous team is one that’s got nothing to lose. We don’t right now,” said McCabe. “We’ve been talking about that since midway through the season. We knew where we stacked up against everybody else and we just figured, let’s keep getting better.” 

West Virginia split its regular season series with Oklahoma. The Mountaineers won the first meeting in early February by eight points, but then dropped a rematch in Norman two weeks ago by 12. 

The biggest differences in those two matchups were turnovers and a disparity in shooting percentage.

WVU committed just 12 turnovers in its win over the Sooners, but then committed 12 in the first half alone in the second meeting. The Mountaineers gave the ball away five more times before the end of that game. 

West Virginia shot about 42 percent from the field in each meeting, but the Sooners made 59 percent of their attempts in their 92-80 victory. 

“I think we just had too many mental errors when we went to go play them,” said junior Jermaine Haley. “We went over the scout the whole week, and I think guys mentally are ready for the game.” 

Scoring droughts have regularly hampered the Mountaineers this season, and that was again an issue in West Virginia’s loss at Oklahoma. WVU allowed a 17-2 Oklahoma run over a span of nearly seven minutes in the first half, allowing the Sooners to gain a 14-point lead by halftime. 

OU continued to build on that lead in the second half, until the Mountaineers made a late charge to cut the deficit to single digits with a group comprised of five newcomers. 

Huggins will have to rely heavily on those newcomers in the postseason, as only two members of last year’s tournament finalist team remain on the roster. McCabe thinks this group, which won two of four to end the regular season, has made great strides in the past month.

Huggins pointed out that experience was the key component of West Virginia’s last three runs to the league championship game, rattling off a list of veterans who grew within the program before shining on the big stage in March. Now, with a much different group of players, the Mountaineers can still keep growing for as long as they advance in the postseason. 

“Things are getting a lot smoother, a lot more crisp. You can kind of tell in practice, just when we’re going five-on-oh or even when we put in our five-on-five stuff and test what we’ve been working on, we’re just a lot more crisp, a lot more clean with everything we’ve been doing,” said McCabe. “We’re excited to get on this stage and show how far we’ve come.” 

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