Columns/Opinion, Men's Basketball, Opinion, WVU Sports

COLUMN: Finding ways to close the gap with Kansas has to be WVU’s top priority in the offseason

MORGANTOWN — At some point in the future, whether it’s in Columbus, Ohio, Birmingham, Ala., Sacramento or even Las Vegas or New York, this WVU men’s basketball season will come to an end.

It will end somewhere in the NCAA tournament, the Mountaineers, at the very least, earned that right in recent weeks by building a solid postseason resumé.

Thursday’s 78-61 loss to top-seeded Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinals at the T-Mobile Center did not damage that in the least.

What it did do was set up the one and only direction that needs to be taken into account in every decision made by WVU head coach Bob Huggins and his coaching staff once this season comes to an end.

That direction: How can WVU get closer to competing with the Jayhawks?

As in every time a WVU coach takes a look at a player in the transfer portal in the offseason, the only thing he needs to ask himself is does that player help WVU compete with Kansas?

If WVU wants to sign a high school kid, will that player, once developed and matured, help WVU compete with Kansas?

Forget everything else. Forget questions such as will this player bring toughness or athleticism or size? Forget the usual recruiting jargon you usually hear about how a prospect has a good shooting touch or defensive capabilities.

Nope. Can he help WVU compete against Kansas, that’s all that needs to be asked. Period.

We say this knowing full well that about two weeks ago, WVU was inside Allen Fieldhouse with an opportunity to win or tie the game with 23 seconds remaining.

On that particular day, WVU (19-14) went blow-for-blow with the Jayhawks.

The key part to that is “on that particular day.”

We’re talking about so much more than showing up for one game here.

We’re talking night in and night out every move WVU makes has to be with a singular focus of competing with Kansas (26-6), who moves on to face Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals on Friday.

And here’s why: If every move is made with the idea of competing with the Jayhawks, all of that other stuff about finding guys who can compete, maybe run a little faster, play a little bit better defense and jump a little higher is already taken care of.

Focusing on closing the gap with Kansas takes care of it all.

If you can compete with Kansas, you’re good enough to move up in the Big 12. If you can compete with Kansas, you’ve already got size, skills, attitude and whatever else you want in an athlete.

And let’s be honest, that gap is sort of wide between WVU and Kansas at the moment.

“We didn’t have that bounce,” Huggins said. “We had no bounce in our step at all. This was … this wasn’t the team that I had all year. I mean, we came out with absolutely no enthusiasm, no pep in our step. It was, it was a bad game.”

The Jayhawks won their sixth in a row against WVU.

Including the close two-point loss that one particular day, those defeats have come by an average of 14.3 points per game.

Kansas led for 35 minutes Wednesday. There’s only 40 minutes in a game.

The Jayhawks threw lobs from halfcourt that ended up as dunks. They ran simple pick-and-roll plays that ended up as lob dunks.

“They just came out and played harder than us, had energy,” WVU guard Erik Stevenson said. “Obviously they’re a really good team. They can make shots. They are really good in the pick-and-roll game because they got a guy named K.J. Adams who can put his chin on the rim.”

They’ve done that for years, too, going back to well before Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe were getting picked apart in the paint and dunked on.

Kansas scored 52 points in the paint. That’s 67% of their points coming from close range, mostly dunks.

In the three losses against Kansas this season, the Jayhawks scored exactly 100 points in the paint. In the three losses against Kansas last season, the Jayhawks totaled 142 points in the paint.

We stress the word “compete,” because there is a major difference between competing with Kansas and elevating the program to the same level as Kansas.

The second can’t be done. Not at WVU, which is not meant to be read as a negative or some type of slap to the face.

Realistically, there’s maybe 10 other programs — out of 350 Division I schools — around the entire country who can call itself elite and on the same level as the Jayhawks.

“They’ve been at the top of the ladder year after year after year,” Huggins said.

Ten years from now, 20 or even 30 or 40, when most of us will be long gone, that will still be the case.

We’re strictly talking competing. Not losing by double digits most of the time. Not giving up dunk after dunk. Not giving up 52 points in the paint.

And then good enough to win more than once in every 12 meetings against the Jayhawks, which is what the current score is.

So, what we would tell WVU today is to enjoy the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers certainly deserve to be there.

Once April rolls around, though, Huggins and his staff should have just one direction, and that’s to simply look a heck of a lot better against Kansas than it did in Kansas City.

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