By Cam Huffman
Texas has been to three Final Fours, the most recent in 2003, and has made the NCAA Tournament for 14 straight seasons under head coach Rick Barnes, five of them ending in the Sweet 16 round or deeper.
West Virginia has been to two Final Fours, the most recent in 2010, and has made the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons, including five in as many seasons under head coach Bob Huggins.
But as those two programs prepare to meet tonight in Austin, Texas, at 9 p.m. on ESPN2, both of those streaks are in jeopardy.
WVU enters today’s Big 12 game at 7-6 overall and 0-1 in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers are coming off a 67-57 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday in their first-ever Big 12 game. They blew a 12-point second-half lead after shooting just 22.2 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes.
Texas is in a similar position at 8-6 overall and 0-1 in Big 12 play. It owns a win over then-No. 23 North Carolina and was competitive against No. 20 Michigan State, but it also lost to Chaminade early in the year and is fresh off an 86-79 overtime loss at Baylor.
“Like Bobby (Huggins), I don’t know what to expect,” said Barnes in evaluating today’s matchup. “We’ve both had programs that have played at the very highest level, and that’s the standard that we both believe in. Regardless of what other people might think of our teams, we know what our expectations are.”
And neither is meeting those expectations.
West Virginia’s problems are many. For starters, the Mountaineers are last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage, shooting just 39.7 percent from the field, and their 69.2 points per game ranks seventh in the 10-team league.
“At the risk of sounding simplistic, it would be nice if we made a shot every once in a while,” said Huggins. “We just haven’t shot the ball very well. We haven’t shot it very well inside, and we haven’t shot it from 3.”
But that’s just the start of the problem. Huggins said every team struggles to make shots at some point. The key is to find other ways to score.
“We’ve always been very proficient at scoring off the offensive glass, and obviously we haven’t done that,” said Huggins. “We’ve got to do a better job of keeping balls alive and finishing around the goal. We missed 11 shots inside of 3 feet (against OU). We’ve got to do a better job.”
Huggins said WVU needs somebody to step forward and take control of the team.
“In the past, we’ve always had seniors step up,” he said. “We lost Joe Alexander, and everybody said, ‘What are you going to do?’ Da’Sean Butler stepped up. We lost Da’Sean Butler; Kevin Jones stepped up. I think our problem is that we haven’t had anybody step up.”
Huggins said he’s seen the opposite from a young Texas team.
“They’re extremely talented,” he said. “I think Rick’s done a great job with a bunch of young guys. He’s got them playing like a bunch of veterans, not like freshmen and sophomores.”
Barnes doesn’t necessarily agree.
“Anytime he says something, I take it as a compliment, because he’s one of the best coaches to ever coach the game,” he said of Huggins’ high praise. “But when I look at my team, you can’t except some of the mistakes. They think they’re older than they are, and they ought to play that way.”
Texas is even worse than West Virginia when it comes to putting points on the scoreboard, averaging just 65 points per game, ahead of only TCU in the Big 12. Its 40.6 field goal percentage is ahead of only WVU, and the Longhorns’ minus-2.35 turnover margin is the worst in the conference.
“We are who we are right now,” said Barnes, whose team is led by sophomore guard Sheldon McClellan, who’s averaging 15.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. “We’re an 8-6 team, and we’re an 8-6 team for a reason, because we haven’t been consistently tough enough to do the things that are necessary to win basketball games.
“We haven’t established an attitude where we know that everybody is going to do their job every day. It’s not just making shots and scoring points. We’ve got to get better at the details.”
WVU and Texas have met three other times on the hardwood, with the Longhorns holding a 2-1 advantage. The most recent meeting came in the 2006 Sweet 16, when Kenton Paulino hit a long three at the buzzer to give his club a 74-71 victory over John Beilein’s Mountaineers. That loss ended the WVU careers of Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, Johannes Herber, J.D. Collins and Patrick Beilein, one of the best senior classes in WVU history.
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