For slumping Mountaineers, the future is now
MORGANTOWN - Bob Huggins has spent much of the last few days answering questions about West Virginia's now-settled move to the Big 12 next season and what it will mean to the future of such heretofore givens as annual trips to Madison Square Garden and an ancient rivalry with Pitt.
Briefly lost in the shuffle is the all-too-obvious situation facing the Mountaineers of this season: They are floundering in the throes of a three-week slump that has jeopardized their NCAA tournament chances and could dearly use a win over those Panthers in order to turn things around.
Well, West Virginia (16-10, 6-7 Big East) gets that chance tonight against Pitt (15-11, 4-9) at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. The 9 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN.
Future games against Pitt? Now's not the time to get wrapped up in all of that.
"I don't think about those things. Honestly, I don't,'' Huggins said. "We're trying to prepare so we can go up and win a game. I really haven't thought about that.''
Winning a game has been a tough task for the Mountaineers for nearly a month now. In fact, it was Jan. 18 against Marshall when West Virginia last had a convincing win, beating the Herd by 16 points.
Yes, there was a fairly impressive overtime victory against Cincinnati three days after that, beating a Bearcats team that hadn't lost a Big East road game in nearly a year. But including that game, WVU is just six points and two overtime victories away from a seven-game losing skid.
In those seven games, the Mountaineers have lost five and, in addition to Cincinnati, needed overtime and a last-second 3-pointer by Truck Bryant to vanquish Big East cellar-dweller Providence.
While a few of those games have simply been poor performances (a lopsided loss at St. John's tops the list), most have been games that could have gone either way. The Mountaineers lost late leads against both No. 23 Notre Dame and No. 19 Louisville, and fell at No. 2 Syracuse in part because of a goaltending no-call in the final 10 seconds.
"I told them before the [Louisville] game, we're very, very close to being a good basketball team,'' Huggins said. "Obviously there have been some things happen that we'd sure like to get back. But you don't get to do that. You don't get any mulligans. We've got to finish games.''
The other loss in the recent slide was at home to Pitt, which endured an eight-game losing streak and an 0-7 start to Big East play before beginning to right its ship. The Panthers are 4-2 since that awful start to league play, and beat WVU 72-66 21/2 weeks ago.
That was a game that pretty much summed up the difference for Pitt when point guard Tray Woodall scored 24 points. Woodall missed most of the losing streak with an injury.
"He played great against us,'' Huggins said. "Really, he played about as well as any point guard has played against us.''
Woodall will once again be of great concern to the Mountaineers tonight, because his presence makes all the Panthers better.
"He's a great distributor,'' Huggins said of Woodall. "When you get open and you know you're going to get the ball, you have a tendency to work a whole lot harder to get open.''
Woodall, though, has struggled of late and Pitt has reverted to its earlier form. After running off four straight wins, the Panthers have lost back-to-back road games to South Florida and Seton Hall. If the Panthers have any NCAA hopes left, tonight's game just might be more important to them than to WVU.
West Virginia, meanwhile, will go in once again hoping to get a better performance from Bryant, who since that Marshall game has had shooting nights of 2-for-16, 4-for-13, 4-for-11, 2-for-7, 11-for-22, 0-for-6 and 3-for-17. Against Providence, he had 32 points and the game-tying and game-winning baskets, but in the other six games he is 15-for-70 (21.4 percent) overall and 9-for-45 (20 percent) on 3-pointers.
BRIEFLY: Tonight's game is West Virginia's only one in an 11-day span beginning with last Saturday's 77-74 loss to Louisville. The Mountaineers don't play again until Wednesday night at Notre Dame. After that, the regular season ends with home games against Marquette (a week from Friday) and DePaul and a March 2 trip to South Florida.
"I think K.J. clearly has been the best player in the league,'' Huggins said. "I mean, when you look at the history of the Big East, there's only been two people that led the league in both scoring and rebounding for a season. That says volumes.
"But obviously it would be better if we won.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1