By John Raby
AP Sports Writer
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins isn’t about to give up on a lousy season just yet.
As unpredictable as the Big 12 has been this season, even Huggins is hopeful that the Mountaineers will do well in the conference tournament.
“I think we can still make a run,” Huggins said Monday.
Anything short of a berth in the conference tournament championship game will give Huggins his worst record in terms of percentage in 31 seasons as a head coach and his first losing season since he went 12-14 with Akron in 1984-85. His only other losing mark was 14-16 with Walsh College in 1980-81.
It also would mean West Virginia will sit out the NCAA tournament for the first time in Huggins’ six seasons at his alma mater. He took the Mountaineers to the Final Four in 2010.
Eighth-seeded West Virginia (13-18, 6-12 Big 12) will take a six-game losing streak into Wednesday night’s opener with ninth-seeded Texas Tech (10-19, 3-15) in Kansas City, Mo. The winner gets Kansas in the quarterfinals.
Huggins is the third-winningest active coach in Division I, but he’s been stuck on win No. 723 for quite some time.
“We’ve just got to be able to put it together,” Huggins said. “I think if we put it together, we’re not that far away from being able to beat some pretty good people.”
Scoring has been the main problem. No players are averaging in double figures. If it ends up that way, it’s the first time that will happen at West Virginia since 1944.
Freshman Eron Harris leads the team at 9.9 points per game. No freshman has led the Mountaineers in scoring since Warren Baker in 1973.
Veteran players that Huggins had counted on to be the centerpieces of the team have performed well in small bursts, then disappeared. West Virginia didn’t have a player named to The Associated Press all-Big 12 team on Monday.
“We have some guys obviously that didn’t play quite as well as what they felt they were going to play or we thought they were going to play,” Huggins said.
Center Deniz Kilicli had a career-high 25 points against Texas Tech on Feb. 16 but has been held to single digits in four of the last five games.
Fellow big men Aaric Murray and Kevin Noreen along with guard Terry Henderson and forward Dominique Rutledge also have had solid games followed by many quiet ones.
Huggins’ philosophy of a challenging schedule came back to bite the Mountaineers. The season opened with a 34-point loss at top-ranked Gonzaga, followed by losses in two of three games at the Old Spice Classic. There also were double-digit losses to No. 6 Michigan and Purdue.
Huggins has bemoaned his team’s inconsistent defense, rebounding and lack of focus, such as messing up inbounds plays, calling timeouts at the wrong time, and committing fouls on opponents’ 3-point attempts. He hasn’t liked his players’ intensity in practice at times, either.
Yet there has been solid play in close losses at home to No. 7-ranked Kansas and No. 11 Kansas State. In the regular-season finale against Iowa State on Saturday, West Virginia fell behind by as many as 27 points, then got as close as four before losing 83-74.
“When we get close to winning games, that’s where we mess up,” Harris said.
The players are tired of the embarrassment and playing at times without a purpose. Harris said the conference tournament gives the team a fresh start.
“Our focus is to play the first half like we play second halves when we’re down,” Harris said. “Play it like we’re down 20 from the start, not 0-0. At our best, everybody’s seen how we can be. We can be one of the best teams in the nation at our best. It’s up to us.
“I’m going to do my best to bring it out of everybody in this tournament.”