MORGANTOWN — As in any chess game, the most difficult move is generally the next one, and the 15th-ranked WVU men’s basketball team probably feels a little like that today.
The Mountaineers (16-5, 5-3 Big 12) will walk into a raucous Hilton Coliseum at 7 p.m. Jan. 31, knowing they could go in hundreds of directions against struggling Iowa State (11-9, 2-6).
Deciding which step to take is the question.
“We can’t let this game destroy us,” WVU guard James “Beetle” Bolden said after the Mountaineers took an 83-76 loss against Kentucky on Saturday. “We can’t just fall apart. We’ve got to come together and come to practice and work even harder.”
WVU is in search for not only some answers to its shooting woes, but also for an identity, after so much changed in such a short time.
The Mountaineers lost four of their last five games, all of them coming just after a time when WVU was ranked No. 2 in the country with a strong case to be made it should have been No. 1.
That is all in the rear-view mirror, and the Mountaineers now find themselves in survival mode against the Cyclones today.
“They get 16,000 people there (at Hilton Coliseum) and they play with so much more confidence,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said of the challenge that lies in wait for the Mountaineers today. “They get 16,000 people there, no matter who they play or when. There’s a lot of enthusiasm there and they look forward to playing in front of those people.”
The reality for the Mountaineers is, they would still be just a game behind Kansas in the Big 12 standings with a victory, giving WVU a puncher’s chance to make a run at the league regular-season title. The Mountaineers still face tough road games at Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
“We’ve still got a shot to win the Big 12 tournament,” Bolden said. “That’s on our list of accomplishments for this season and we still have a shot at it.”
Getting to that point is the vision, but what steps will WVU take to get there?
WVU’s frustrations center on how a number of players were playing well three weeks ago. Now Huggins said he is looking for players he can trust.
Mixed in there is the return of forward Esa Ahmad, who was 0 for 12 shooting in losses against TCU and Kentucky, after combining for 33 points in his first two games back, against Texas Tech and Kansas.
“Even though he plays pretty well, people started wondering if he hurt our chemistry,” Huggins said of Ahmad’s return. “You know, ‘Why would we let him come back, because those other guys were playing so well?’ He’s had some un-Esa-like games, but he’s pretty much starting over.”
WVU’s woes go further than Ahmad’s return, and Huggins hinted after the Kentucky game he may look at some lineup changes.
That could mean more playing time for Bolden, who scored 17 points in 17 minutes against Kentucky and also leads WVU in drawing offensive fouls, even though he’s listed at just 160 pounds.
It may mean less time for starters like Daxter Miles Jr. and Lamont West, who have struggled shooting the ball, as has freshman Teddy Allen, who hasn’t seemed to recover fully from being benched for two games this month for what Huggins described as a poor attitude.
“At the same time, Teddy has gone one for his last
10 in field goal attempts,” Huggins said. “Lamont is shooting 23 percent from 3 (points) over his last five games. Dax is shooting 15 percent. It’s not just Esa. We’ve got a slew of guys who were making open shots that aren’t making shots now. That puts more pressure on everybody and every thing. And those are three of the four guys we depend on to score the ball for us.”