The Albatross Around Our Neck: November and December
We might as well start off with the bad, and boy was it bad for the Mountaineers in the early goings of this season. Coming off one of the worst seasons in Mountaineer basketball history (and definitely the worst campaign in the long career of Bob Huggins), the 'Eers looked like a ragtag group of what remained from a summer of cast-offs and roster upheaval. Many thought a repeat performance was destined and the question was starting to be asked: had the great Bob Huggins lost it?
The 'Eers had their shots to prove people wrong early and often. They did nothing with those opportunities.
Let's suck it up and start with a Tuesday afternoon in Blacksburg that will go down as perhaps the one loss that's most hurting our miniscule chances at a bid to the Big Dance. West Virginia roared off to a 17 point lead in the first half, but went stagnant: a 24-8 Hokie run cut that lead to five, and an 8-0 run to start the second half gave them a lead, leading to an eventual five point win by the ACC bottom-dweller.
"We’ve got a whole bunch of young guys that don’t understand when you stop playing, other people don’t."
That was Bob Huggins, talking about his squad after that game. It was a theme that continued for the early weeks of this season.
It's not to say that the Mountaineers weren't winning the games they should. The likes of Presbyterian, Georgia Southern, and Mt. Saint Mary's went down easily enough. It's that any time a challenging opponent showed up, when a chance at a quality win emerged, West Virginia could not rise to the challenge.
There was the seven point loss to a one-seed hopeful in Wisconsin, the nine point loss to a fringe bubble team (until recently) Missouri, and a four point loss to West Coast Conference favorite and perennial tournament team Gonzaga--a game that was the Mountaineers' to win until star guard Kevin Pangos went on a stretch only seen in NBA Jam lore and nailed four consecutive threes to give the Zags the lead and the win.
This team battled early--that wasn't in question. But, battling wasn't enough. The opportunities were there early on for this team to cross the threshold into contention, but they never got over the hump. And next Sunday, the ghosts of those opportunities will be haunting the Mountaineers.
Competing, Regressing, and Competing Again: The Early Big 12
The Mountaineers took care of business early on in conference play. The scheduling gods looked at us with favor, rewarding us with a road trip against TCU and Texas Tech, and the 'Eers came home with two hard fought, but necessary, wins over the bottom of the conference.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys came to Morgantown, and the pattern of early season tests against quality opponents held serve. Rising star Juwan Staten--just beginning his meteoric rise--put together a 20 point performance and the Mountaineers had a two point lead with 11 seconds remaining before Markel Brown silenced the Coliseum with a game-winning three. Staten made a quality play with a driving lay-up attempt, but it rolled out and Devin Williams couldn't send the put back home.
"We’re close. Our problem is that we have a whole bunch of freshmen who don’t understand that when you stop playing hard that people take advantage of you. When you stop playing hard then they do that."
There it was again from Bob Huggins. "We're so close" became something of a mantra for the fanbase at this point: both of disappointment and of hope.
Then it all unraveled: a loss against the Longhorns at home coming off the heels of the depressing loss to Oklahoma State. And then came the lowest point of the season: a 27 point thrashing in the Octagon of Doom at the hands of the Kansas State Wildcats. This was a game that wasn't even as close as those 27 points seem to be. I wrote the most depressing thing ever. Patrick Southern was right about stuff. There was no joy in Morgantown.
WVU followed up that disaster with another close win over Texas Tech and another close loss to the Pokes at Gallagher-Iba. At this point, the 'Eers looked to be what they were: a mediocre team that could hang but that would never get over the top.
And then it got fun again.
My, What a Guy, That Juwan: West Virginia Turns the Corner
The idea that many in the WVU fanbase held this season was that all this team needed was "that one win." One win that would show this young team that they could win-show them that they could do more than compete and fall off at the end of the day.
They got that win on January 28th in Waco, Texas. The Baylor Bears were floundering at the time, but as their late season run showed, they were still filled to the brim with talent and athleticism. It was a "right place at the right time" scenario for the Mountaineers. Juwan Staten hit a late lay-up to break the tie and send an excited young squad back home with a 66-64 win. A rematch with Kansas State awaited in Morgantown.
The young squad rose to the occasion and avenged the Massacre in Manhattan with an 81-71 win fueled by Juwan Staten's eye-popping 35 points. In my opinion, it was easily the best performance in the Coliseum since Da`Sean Butler's 43 against Villanova. Juwan was completely impossible to guard, as he continued to score at will despite whatever K-State threw at him.
"What we’re going to do is look at that as an opportunity. Let’s just keep on winning. Let’s worry about Oklahoma on Wednesday night and let’s get all those people out there to get back here on Wednesday and help us."
They kept on winning--getting their third straight against an Oklahoma team that had *ahem* travel issues prior to the game. All looked lost late in this game--a return to the form of the 'Eers blowing early season leads--until Eron Harris used a cheat code and began scoring anything he wanted from anywhere on the court: he had 28 points to lead the 'Eers to a 91-86 overtime win.
WVU then traveled to legendary Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. They fell, 83-69, but that game was significantly closer than it appeared. Only a late run gave the Jayhawks the large margin of victory. There was a sense that this team could compete with the mighty Jayhawks. /foreshadowing
Another chance at a big time win came in Morgantown with a visit from the high scoring Iowa State Cyclones.
The Bubble Bursts: In Which I Really Hope No One BlamesFor Being Really Sick
After the huge win over Iowa State, the Mountaineers traveled to Austin, trying to prove that the big loss in Morgantown was an aberration. It wasn't. Even though no one actually got to watch this game, it was allegedly a carbon copy of the game in Morgantown. The Longhorns present a match-up nightmare for the young 'Eers that no one in the Big 12 really matches. And because it's the most WVU thing ever, we'll face off with them one last time tonight with whatever NCAA hopes we have on the line. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Mountaineers still had tournament hopes at this point of the year, but one of the most unexpected bumps in the roads ever happened: Terry Henderson got sick. Very sick. And missed a critical four game stretch against Baylor, Iowa State, TCU, and Oklahoma. West Virginia lost all but the home game against the hapless Horned Frogs.
Do I think that we'd have fared better with Terry Henderson? Of course I do. I feel as though Baylor and Oklahoma are wins with T3RRY in the line up. But, I probably couldn't play a pick up game of basketball with a cold, let alone a major college basketball game with what (allegedly) could have been something as dire as Mono. Terry Henderson gets no blame for this. We just don't have the firepower (though Adrian and Dibo try) to make up for the loss of a scorer of Terry's quality and it showed in this critical stretch.
The 'Eers, now 16-14 had one last opportunity on the table: the Kansas Jayhawks on (Manager and Student Trainer) Senior Day.
Paging Dan Beebe: WVU vs. Kansas Round Two
oh, Kansas.— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 8, 2014
OHHHHHHHH KANSAS— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 8, 2014
OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH KANSAS— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 8, 2014
The Mountaineers withstood a masterful game by first-overall pick hopeful, Andrew Wiggins. They built a big lead, blew a big lead, but weather the storm and took down the Jayhawks. This was a true benchmark win in the 'Eers climb back in the Big 12.
This is (and the Iowa State game earlier) is our team at it's best and it might be what our team is next season. But for now, let's enjoy the rest of this young team's roller coaster ride of a season. There's more to be done. Does two wins send us dancing? I think it's possible with Bob Huggins' reputation on our side. It's not a lock by any means, however. But if the Mountaineers' can get past their nemesis in Texas, games against teams that they've already beaten await. A magical run could be on table, but even if it doesn't work out that way, there's nothing wrong with seeing this team in the NIT.
Some teams (Kentucky last year) see the NIT as a complete failure, but others can see it as a springboard to further success. That was WVU in 2007 and it could be WVU this year. If this team--with everyone returning--gets a taste of tournament success, who knows what could come from it in 2014-2015. Holton will be free, Macon will be eligible, and our young players that made it through this season of ups and downs will be developed even further by their Hall of Fame coach.
Buckle up, the Mountaineers will be back.