The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 7, 2013

The waiting is the hardest part

Mountaineer fans still longing for a turnaround in Big 12 debut

Saturday’s first-ever Big 12 basketball game at the WVU Coliseum had sort of a strange feeling to it. Although a solid crowd of 12,112 fans came out and sported their gold to watch the Mountaineers and the Sooners do battle, it seemed like they spent most of the game sitting on their hands just waiting for something to happen.

It wasn’t really a surprise. WVU fans have done a lot of that this season.

Since opening up the season with a huge dud in an 84-50 loss at Gonzaga, Mountaineer supporters have been waiting to see some progress from the team they love. They have been waiting to see the team that head coach Bob Huggins promised would be better than the sixth-place finish that was predicted by the Big 12 coaches.

They thought they saw it when a 3-3 WVU team upset previously undefeated Virginia Tech for its third straight win on Dec. 8. But WVU responded by blowing a double-digit lead at Duquesne and then collapsing down the stretch in an 81-66 loss to No. 3 Michigan.

After two lackluster performances in wins over Oakland and Radford at home, fans thought the Mountaineers had finally turned the corner when they played nearly flawless basketball in the early going against Eastern Kentucky, opening up a 16-point lead.

But WVU again stumbled and actually let the Colonels take the lead before regaining control and winning 74-67.

Surely this was the moment that could be marked down as the turning point, Mountaineer fans thought, when Terry Henderson knocked down six 3-pointers to help WVU open up a 12-point lead against Oklahoma Saturday in the conference opener.

Again, though, WVU let the fans down, scoring just two points in the final 5 minutes as the Sooners celebrated a 67-57 victory on their first trip to Morgantown.

So the wait continues, and it’s hard to blame Mountaineer fans for maintaining the belief that the light bulb will eventually illuminate for this team. They’ve seen it too many times before.

The 2010-11 team was 8-4 overall, 0-2 in Big East play and had already lost to one of the league’s bottom teams in St. John’s before it beat No. 8 Purdue, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 11 Louisville down the stretch, finishing 20-11 and making the NCAA Tournament, where it knocked off Clemson in the opening round before bowing out.

Last year’s team lost an exhibition to a Division II squad, fell to Kent State and struggled to beat Missouri State in its nonconference slate before going on a run to win 19 games and find a spot in “The Big Dance.” Huggins has proved that he knows how to get the most out of any team, and fans are certain this group won’t be the exception. Huggins has taken his team to the tournament in all five seasons he’s been the coach, the faithful maintain, and he’ll do it again.

The problem is that those teams had some key pieces. There were guys like Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones, who could carry the team on their shoulders and find a way to win.

This year’s team has no clear go-to guy when times get rough. When the team goes through a dry spell and needs a basket, there’s nobody who steps forward, demands the ball and comes through.

It’s not as if one problem is keeping WVU from reaching its full potential and when it gets fixed, opponents better watch out.

This team can’t shoot — it’s last in the 10-team Big 12 in field goal percentage, knocking down just 39.7 percent of its shots — it’s not playing defense — it’s allowing 67 points per game, one of the biggest numbers in its new league — and it’s not rebounding as it has in the past — ranking close to the bottom of the Big 12 in defensive rebounds and rebounding margin.

WVU doesn’t have a big, physical threat inside or a sharp-shooter on the perimeter to strike fear in opposing defenses, and it certainly isn’t playing with confidence.

Perhaps the biggest concern is that the team, like its fans, seems to be waiting for something to change, instead of making a change.

“The truth of the matter is that they just wanted to win more than we did,” said Huggins after Saturday’s loss to the Sooners. “We’ve had teams that have missed shots before, but the difference is that we fought it more. We rebounded the ball and did the hard things. We guarded better. You have to compensate for it. You have to do other things.”

Like most, I have a hard time counting Huggins out. I’ve seen him overcome injuries, suspensions, attitudes and talent deficiencies, and it’s obvious how much effort he puts into becoming a winner and how much he wants that to happen for his alma mater.

But it’s difficult to find a scenario that would see this team playing in the NCAA Tournament. So far, there isn’t a big win on the resumé, although there are a couple of bad losses in Davidson and Duquesne.

Nineteen wins won’t be enough in this league, as it was last year in the Big East, and to even get to that number would take a 12-6 finish down the stretch against all Big 12 opponents and Purdue.

More realistically, WVU will probably have to win 14 out of the 18 remaining games to get to 21 wins and assure itself a spot at the tournament table.

With two meetings against No. 25 Kansas State, two against No. 22 Oklahoma State and two against No. 6 Kansas, not to mention a couple against Texas and Baylor and a trip to Purdue, left on the schedule, there are just too many road blocks left to avoid.

Oklahoma is not among the Big 12’s best, and WVU is now 0-2 against the Sooners, including the loss in the Old Spice Classic. If the Mountaineers can’t beat OU at home, the Big 12 schedule — with all its travel and five coaches who have been to the Final Four — is not going to be fun.

Keep the faith if you wish. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to believe. But don’t book that tournament travel. I’m afraid you might be left — well, waiting.

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