Think back to the end of the 2013 WVU men's basketball season. They had just lost to Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, capping off the season with their seventh straight loss to finish 13-19 on the year. Bob Huggins gave one last troubled, exasperated press conference, and Mountaineer fans everywhere were seriously concerned about the future of the program. The team was in complete disarray, with everyone looking out for #1 and no one appearing to be particularly interested in what they were doing.
The offseason saw major roster shakeups, with Jabarie Hinds, Aaron Brown, Aaric Murray, Keaton Miles, Aric Dickerson, and Volodymyr Gerun all leaving the program early. WVU was left with a lot of young, inexperienced players and a point guard who had a below average (at best) 2013 season. The message boards were calling for Bob Huggins' head on a platter and expectations for the 2014 season were at an all-time low. Some were saying the Mountaineers would be lucky to reach double figures in wins.
But here they set at 15-12 and 7-7 in conference play. With last year's stains hanging over their heads, it is amazing that with five games to go in the regular season, the Mountaineers are considered (even as a long shot) a bubble team for the NCAA tournament. The attitude around the program is completely different. Think back to last year's press conferences, game after game Coach Huggins would talk about how he just couldn't get these guys to play hard and realize the amount of work it takes to succeed. He just seemed to hate the team. This year he's talking about how much they care, and about what a leader Juwan Staten has become. Last year he always looked like he was in a terrible mood, showing absolutely no emotion. This year, he - well, he still always seems to be in a terrible mood and shows no emotion, but you get the idea. The momentum of the program has done a complete 180.
Last year in conference play, WVU was 9th in the league in turnovers and 8th in points per game. This year, they are 1st in turnovers and 4th in points per game. Last year they didn't have a single player to average double figures on the season. This year they have three players above 12 points per game and two of the top three leading scorers in the Big 12 in Eron Harris and Juwan Staten. Staten is a legitimate candidate for first-team all-conference and at least in the discussion for conference player of the year. Last year they lost 10 games by double figures, including a 34 point loss to Gonzaga, a 27 point loss to Purdue, and a 26 point loss to Kansas. This year they've only lost 5 by double figures (twice to a Texas team with overpowering size), and the loss at Kansas was much closer than the score indicates. By the end of last season you couldn't find a single person in the state of West Virginia who would say they enjoyed watching the Mountaineers play basketball. This season the team is legitimately fun to watch, and a product that the whole state can be proud of.
So even if the Mountaineers miss out on the big dance, don't forget how far they've come in just one season. A lot of Mountaineer Nation would have taken any kind of postseason play if asked before the season. The hot streak to start conference play may have given some people unrealistic expectations. WVU does not have the depth this year to consistently play as a top conference team. But the fact that at times they do play like one of the top teams in the conference shows the year-to-year improvement.
Rebuilding a program is a process. After the 2013 season a complete tear-down was necessary. And this 2014 season, even if it ends with a trip to the NIT, can be judged as nothing but a success. I would venture to say it will be the last season at least for a few years when the Mountaineers aren't dancing in March. Every single player on the team will be back next year. Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton, who Coach Huggins named as two of the three best rebounders on the team, will be eligible to play. The freshmen and sophomores will be that much more experienced. The program isn't completely fixed, but no one can doubt that it's not back on the right track.