By Cam Huffman
he talk about what has to happen for West Virginia University’s basketball team to find a spot in the NCAA Tournament has been silenced. The Big 12 standings have been put inside a drawer, and the RPI ratings have been set aside for another year.
The extra worries that have been on the table at this time of year in Bob Huggins’ previous five seasons as the Mountaineer head coach just aren’t necessary anymore. At 8-9 overall and 1-3 in Big 12 play, there’s no reason for WVU to worry about anything heading into tonight’s 7:30 p.m. contest at home against TCU — which will be shown to the nation on ESPN2 — other than finding a way to get a win.
The concerns that came about during an up-and-down run through November that saw the Mountaineers go 7-5 through the first 12 nonconference games have come to fruition in recent weeks.
After blowing a double-digit second-half lead to fall 67-57 to Oklahoma in its Big 12 opener, WVU came from behind to win 57-53 in overtime at Texas, and the future was starting to look brighter.
A 65-64 home loss to No. 18 Kansas State the next time out was a disappointment for those involved with the program, but it did little to temper the idea that the Mountaineers were improving and that the season might not be a total wash.
“We felt pretty good going into the Kansas State game, and we did a pretty good job, defensively,” said Huggins, looking back on the last few games during Monday’s Big 12 conference call. “We just didn’t make a basket when we needed it and didn’t execute the last inbounds play very well.”
When WVU followed with a 69-67 loss at Iowa State last Wednesday — fighting back from 18 down to tie the game in the closing seconds, only to watch ISU sink a late bucket in the lane to win — the team’s ability to finish off games came into question.
“We just didn’t get a stop when we needed a stop,” said Huggins. “But we held them to one of their lowest offensive outputs of the year.”
Then, on Saturday, Huggins’ squad hit rock bottom with a 79-52 loss at Purdue that was never competitive. WVU shot just 29.3 percent from the field, and it gave up more than 70 points for the first time since a 76-71 win over Oakland on Dec. 19.
“When you score, you probably have more energy,” said Huggins of the way one problem led to another for his club. “We started the game and missed a layup. Then we turned it over two or three of the next four possessions. We shot ourselves in the foot, in that regard.
“The hope is that when you do those things, you play that much harder to get yourself back in the game. Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
It was the Mountaineers’ fourth loss in its last five games.
“We find different ways to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Huggins. “We shoot OK from the field, and we can’t make a foul shot. We make foul shots, and we can’t shoot it from the field. I’ve never had teams that didn’t guard, but we haven’t guarded very well.”
Watching a team go through all of the struggles that the 2012-13 Mountaineers have experienced would be difficult for a coach no matter the situation, but Huggins said what makes the recent run of futility even harder to digest is that it came as a complete surprise.
“I never saw it coming,” said Huggins, explaining that coaches usually have a pretty good handle on how good of a team they will have. “I honestly thought we would be very competitive.”
The numbers, though, tell the story.
WVU is eighth in the 10-team Big 12 in scoring offense, averaging just 67 points per game. It’s last in field goal percentage, shooting 39 percent, and next-to-last in 3-point percentage at 28 percent.
But to Huggins, the defensive numbers are even more concerning. Huggins’ teams have always been known for their defense, but this WVU squad is eighth in the league in scoring defense, giving up nearly 67 points per game. It’s allowing teams to shoot 43 percent from the field, the second-highest number in the Big 12, and 35 percent from 3-point range, something Huggins said has “never, ever happened” to one of his teams.
The good news for WVU fans tonight is that the Mountaineers are facing an opponent that has had similar struggles in its first season of Big 12 play. The Horned Frogs that will visit the WVU Coliseum tonight are just 9-9 overall and they haven’t come up with their first Big 12 win after five tries.
In fact, every conference loss besides the first one, a 62-53 defeat at home against Texas Tech, has come by double digits.
TCU is last in the league in scoring offense, averaging only 54.8 points per game, and it also brings up the rear in free throw percentage, rebounding, blocked shots and steals.
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.