KANSAS CITY - There were a number of moments during Wednesday night’s game against Texas Tech Mountaineer basketball fans have grown accustomed to seeing this season – West Virginia’s inability to finish key plays late in games, the head-scratching decisions that come from being young and inexperienced, and, clearly, a habitual difficulty getting to the basketball.
Of the three, Coach Bob Huggins believes that last trait was his team’s biggest sin.
“Our credo for as long as I’ve coached has always been get to the ball,” Huggins said following WVU’s 71-69 loss to the Red Raiders in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. “It’s hard to win when you don’t get to the ball. And this group, for whatever reason, is the worst that we’ve ever had at getting to the ball.”
West Virginia started slowly against Tech, falling behind by 14 twice in the first half, but once again the Mountaineers fought hard to get back into it. Then, with WVU trailing by 11, forward Aaric Murray
was whistled for a technical foul midway through the first half that led to a pair of Ty Nurse free throws.
Early in the second half, guard Matt Humphrey
was called for another technical foul after hitting a big 3 to reduce Tech’s lead to one, 42-41. Humphrey was a key part of the run, too, adding a pair of baskets ahead of the 3 before taking a seat on the bench. Humphrey never got back into the game after that.
“I guess there was some talking going on,” said Huggins. “They told them to shut up, and our guys, I think, said something after they were told to be quiet. The truth of the matter is it should never happen. You can go back and look, my guys don’t do that – they have never done that. It’s inexcusable.”
There were other instances Wednesday night when the players once again made the game much, much harder than it should have been.
In the first half, in the midst of a run, West Virginia got nothing in transition when it tried the spectacular (a reversing, twisting shot close to the basket) instead of the practical, an easy pass to the team’s best 3-point shooter standing wide open on the wing. Another time, one of West Virginia’s bigs tried a shot on the other side of the rim against a much smaller player when he could have easily gone directly to the basket.
And later, a Mountaineer player in transition attempted to make a one-handed bounce pass through at least three different defenders to a guy that had no chance of scoring in heavy traffic. After watching Huggins’ West Virginia teams for the last five seasons, this stuff never happened. But this year it happened, for whatever reason.
So where does West Virginia go from here?
The Big 12 is clearly perimeter oriented with eight of the league’s top 10 players on the all-conference first and second teams being guards. The Big 12 has big, physical guards who are strong with the ball; small, quick guards and rangy, shooting guards who can score from anywhere on the floor. The conference also has plenty of wings that can score off the bounce - something WVU didn't encounter as much when it played in the Big East.
It is obvious that the Mountaineers are going to need improved backcourt play, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. When you think of all those great Cincinnati teams Huggins had through the years, bigs such as Martin and Fortson immediately come to mind, but Huggs also got terrific guard play, particularly at the point.
Two of West Virginia’s most dependable scorers this year were freshman guards – Eron Harris
and Terry Henderson
– and the Mountaineers have other guards returning who have played well at times in the past. It will be imperative that those guys work on their all-around games during the off-season to get better, while also getting bigger and stronger in the weight room.
West Virginia is losing two of its top four bigs to graduation and is bringing in four players standing 6-feet-8-inches or taller next year. All indications are that Devin Williams, a 6-8 forward playing this year at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla., and Elijah Macon, an explosive 6-9 power forward from Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., are the two newcomers most ready to provide the sorely needed inside presence that the Mountaineers struggled to get for much of this season. As is the case with the backcourt, it’s clear that West Virginia is going to need better play in the paint next season as well.
As for the Mountaineers’ first year in the Big 12, it was a learning experience across the board - from the amount of travel required to play in the conference that extends to a different time zone to the type of players needed to compete in the league on a nightly basis to the style of officiating they are now encountering.
Would this team have struggled in the Big East this year? Is the Big 12 that much of a better basketball conference than the Big East? Or, were the players on this year’s roster just not suited for the Big 12 style of play?
“I don’t know,” said Huggins. “The fact of the matter is they were recruited and they were all signed and on board before we switched leagues. But certainly we should have done a better job than we did. That’s my fault. I’m not blaming anybody other than me. We should have done a better job.”
Huggins has said frequently during his team’s late-season slide that it is his job to fix the problems. His track record provides ample proof that he will get the Mountaineer program back on track. The question now becomes how quickly can he get that accomplished?
The bet here is that it will be sooner rather than later. Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.