Chuck McGill: Losses pile up, but WVU might be on the cusp
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Coaches tend to shy away from moral victories. Players, too, can be averse to drift down a road where a loss is deemed acceptable or tolerable, for one reason or another.
"I like to stay away from moral victories," West Virginia point guard Juwan Staten said after his Mountaineers lost to No. 15 Gonzaga, 80-76, Tuesday night inside the Coliseum. "I like the real victories."
Thirteen months ago, Staten's WVU debut ended in the worst loss of Bob Huggins' coaching career. Huggins, in an even more somber tone than usual, said after that 34-point loss that the Mountaineers "have a lot to fix. How do you fix them all, you know?"
Gonzaga's 84-50 home win over the Mountaineers to open the 2012-13 season proved to be a harbinger. The Bulldogs nearly navigated the regular season unscathed and entered the NCAA Tournament as the West Region No. 1 seed; West Virginia finished 13-19, the most losses of Huggins' career.
The 34-point loss was one of nine double-digit defeats for WVU last season. Although the Mountaineers again -- like a year ago -- have four losses on Dec. 11, they are by a combined 25 points. That's an average of 6.3 points per loss.
Last season West Virginia lost its 19 games by an average of 11.6 points -- the worst figure since Huggins returned to his alma mater.
Tuesday's loss was the 14th consecutive for the program against ranked teams, but the previous 13 defeats came by an average of 15.3 points. That includes last season's losses of 26 (at No. 6 Kansas), 16 (vs. No. 14 Oklahoma State), 15 (vs. No. 3 Michigan) and, of course, the dejecting defeat to those plucky Zags.
This season, deflation has been replaced by frustration.
"I think there's a level of frustration any time you lose a game because you just don't want to lose, especially when you're right there," Staten said after WVU's fourth single-digit loss this season. The Mountaineers actually led by double figures in two of those losses.
"It's great that we're not getting blown out or anything," Staten added, "but it gets frustrating that the games we are losing that we're right there. It lets us know that it's just a couple possessions, a couple plays here or there that are costing us."
The Mountaineers (6-4) have just three non-conference games left: vs. Marshall in Charleston; home against Purdue; and against William & Mary in Charleston. What follows is another arduous journey through the Big 12, a 16-game conference schedule that features eight games against teams that are currently in the national polls. WVU has lost 16 of 17 games against top 25 opponents.
After Tuesday's game at the Coliseum - in which WVU led by 10 points, 51-41, with 16:08 left - my mind drifted back to the bowels of the McCarthy Athletic Center on Gonzaga's campus thirteen months ago. The smaller-than-usual media contingent that made the cross-country trek for the game waited patiently as Huggins counseled his team, for a prolonged period, behind closed locker room doors.
Once the crestfallen group emerged, they said the team's offense was "broken" and "out of sync." Huggins said his team shot the basketball "terrible."
There is a stark contrast between then and now, although it hasn't yet shown up in the standings.
Coaches don't have to wrap their arms around moral victories to see that, occasionally, a loss can boost morale and that frustration can be a welcome substitute for deflation. The cusp is a necessary step, not one that is easy to hurdle en route to NCAA tournaments, 20-win seasons and regular wins over ranked opposition.
WVU is last in the Big 12 in winning percentage, but so far nothing has let the air of out the Mountaineers' season. Huggins, in his 32nd season, is conveying a different message with a group that lost its third consecutive game to Gonzaga, but made a 30-point turnaround from one year to the next.
"I think it is pretty evident they don't quit," Huggins said of his team. "We're close. We're so close. We're so close to being pretty good, but at the same time we're so far away.
"I think we can beat everybody that we've played. I think given another chance at the end of the year, we can beat everybody that we've played to this point because we're going to continue to get better and better and better."
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.