After a terrific run through the Big 12 tournament last season to win the title, West Virginia's women's basketball team had high aspirations for 2017-18. The Mountaineers expected four starters to return, including guard Tynice Martin, who emerged as a major threat during her sophomore season.
But as has been the case for several teams, West Virginia has dealt with injuries -- including to Martin -- that have changed the dynamics for the Mountaineers. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is Teana Muldrow.
"The most unselfish player I've ever seen," coach Mike Carey said. "She's changed positions four or five times and never complained. She does whatever's best for the team. She gives you everything she has every day in practice. Just really pleasant to coach and great to be around."
Muldrow, a 6-foot-1 senior forward, has been a rock for a squad that went unbeaten in nonconference play, including a 14-point victory over Texas A&M in early December. But the Mountaineers have run into more adversity in the Big 12, including two losses at home: to Kansas State on Jan. 3 and to TCU in overtime Saturday.
But three of the Big 12's four ranked teams lost to unranked teams last week, with Texas falling at TCU and Oklahoma State losing at Kansas State. Only Baylor (15-1 overall, 5-0 Big 12) remains unbeaten in league play.
Texas is in second place at 5-1 in the Big 12. Then it's a logjam, with Oklahoma State 3-2, and West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma all 3-3.
The Mountaineers travel to Oklahoma State on Wednesday, then stay on the road for a game Saturday at Iowa State. West Virginia still has both of its matchups with Baylor -- Jan. 28 at home and Feb. 26 in Waco, Texas -- and one with Texas, at home on Feb. 5. West Virginia lost at Texas on Dec. 31.
"We're not where we were nonconference," Carey said. "We're forcing shots, and we're not making the extra pass. Not boxing out all the time, letting people dribble-drive us. We're not talking. I could go on and on. But I've seen us do all those things also."
Martin, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged 18.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists last season and led West Virginia with 76 3-pointers. But she suffered a foot injury on Aug. 3 at USA Basketball's U23 team trials in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was initially expected back by the start of this season, then it was moved to second semester. But she has yet to play, with no timetable for her return.
Junior guard/forward Anja Martin (no relation to Tynice) is out this season with a hip injury, and redshirt freshman forward Krystaline McCune, who missed last season with a knee injury, is out again. Senior forward Kristina King (10.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG) recently returned to the lineup after a foot injury cost her five games.
There is a lot of weight on the shoulders of Muldrow, who is averaging team highs with 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds. But she has the personality to deal with that, plus good support from Naomi Davenport (16.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG), Katrina Pardee (12.4 PPG), Chania Ray (10.9 PPG, 5.4 APG) and King.
"Having Tynice out, especially, is a big loss for us. We definitely miss her," Muldrow said. "But I knew that was my time to step up and to help my teammates out. Coach Carey has put his trust in me a lot, and I've built that with him. I've always been a leader, and I'm trying to focus on being more vocal."
Muldrow, who is from East Orange, New Jersey, sat out 2013-14, then started half the Mountaineers' games in 2014-15 as a redshirt freshman. The next season, she mostly came off the bench. Last year, she started all but one game. She has started all 18 this season. During that time, she has played every position except point guard. Her most natural spot is at forward, but whatever the Mountaineers need, she'll do.
"I know I have the ability to shoot," Muldrow said. "That was my first weapon, even growing up, so I tried to build around that. As my career has gone on, I've tried to improve as many things as possible. I've worked on my ballhandling more. And Coach Carey has put me in positions to be more versatile, and I appreciate that."
While the Mountaineers as a team are still finding themselves, they can look to last season for inspiration. West Virginia went 8-10 in Big 12 play but saved its best for the end of the season, beating Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor in Oklahoma City for the Big 12 tournament title. The Mountaineers advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, in which they fell at Maryland.
Martin was the big star of their Big 12 tourney run, totaling 82 points. But Muldrow had a very good tournament, too, with a combined 44 points and 25 rebounds. That was a confidence boost for her, and it carried over to this season.
"She's a leader, on and off the floor," Carey said. "All I have to do in practice or a game is say, 'Take care of it,' to her, and it's taken care of."
The one thing Muldrow can't do, of course, is heal the Mountaineers' injuries. But she has done her best to try to keep West Virginia from feeling the effects too much. That is likely to be her job the rest of the way.