They lost three of their top six scorers from last season's dreadful 19-loss team and fell against every remotely competent non-league opponent they faced in November and December.
It seemed completely safe to write West Virginia off as a Big 12 bottom feeder entering league play, but the rebuilding Mountaineers have proven a bit more resilient than expected the past few weeks.
West Virginia outlasted 21st-ranked Oklahoma 91-86 in overtime on Wednesday night to extend its winning streak to three straight. Eron Harris sank a game-tying 3-pointer with 24 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, the highlight of a brilliant performance in which the 6-foot-3 sophomore tallied 26 of his game-high 28 points after halftime.
Thanks to Wednesday night's victory over Oklahoma and previous wins at Baylor and at home against Kansas State, West Virginia has now improved to 14-9 overall and to 6-4 in a league that is as strong as any in the nation. It's still a long shot the Mountaineers can play their way into NCAA tournament consideration since their remaining Big 12 schedule is daunting, but they at least appear to be more of a threat than anyone would have guessed as recently as a few weeks ago.
Why is West Virginia better than expected? It starts with the improvement of point guard Juwan Staten.
A former consensus top 75 recruit who transferred to West Virginia after spending his first season at Dayton, Staten was a major disappointment for the Mountaineers last season when he averaged 7.6 points and shot well under 40 percent from the field. Staten has improved in all facets as a junior, scoring 18.0 points per game, shooting 52.7 percent from the floor, dishing out six assists per game and even hitting the occasional jump shot.
With Staten and Harris providing consistent scoring and fellow guard Terry Henderson coming through in spurts, the Mountaineers boast one of the Big 12's most efficient and least turnover-prone offenses. They're not nearly as successful defensively, but they've often been able to overcome that.
Wednesday night was the rare exception to the rule.
West Virginia built a 14-point lead on the strength of exceptional defense, then saw the Sooners come all the way back to take a lead late in regulation behind the scoring of guards Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield. Only Harris' clutch 3-pointer enabled the Mountaineers to force overtime and thwart the Sooners.
The bad news for West Virginia is it's unlikely to sustain its momentum with a visit to Lawrence up next and a pair of games against Iowa State and a visit to Texas also looming later in February. The good news for the Mountaineers is their rebuilding process is still way ahead of schedule.
Every key player from this season's team is slated to return next year and West Virginia has a solid incoming recruiting class and Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon sitting out this season. Success this season is a surprise. Success next season will not be.
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