MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In 104 seasons of basketball, West Virginia has never gotten off to a worse four-game beginning to a season than this year.A 1-3 start has happened just four other times, most recently to begin the 1979-80 season. The other three were in consecutive years prior to World War I - 1915-16 through 1917-18.But as the Mountaineers attempt to avoid an even worse early-season run for the first time since the 1916-17 team opened at 1-6, coach Bob Huggins isn't ready to hit the panic button. In fact, while admitting that his team has tons of work to do, he's convinced that it is also, at least to a degree, a victim of circumstances."The truth is we could have played some people and been 4-0 right now and everybody would think, 'They're going to be really good,' '' Huggins said. "But we didn't. We came out of the gate playing people who were pretty good.''The result has been a blowout loss on the road at No. 12 Gonzaga and close losses on a neutral court to Davidson and Oklahoma. Those three teams are a combined 12-4, with half the losses coming to Gonzaga during the Old Spice Tournament in Orlando, Fla. West Virginia's win came in that tournament against Marist.Tonight the Mountaineers finally open their home season with a game against VMI (3-3) at the Coliseum. The 7 p.m. contest will be televised by Root Sports.How bad have the Mountaineers been? Well, the games against Davidson and Oklahoma were virtual toss-ups within the final few minutes. A break here or a bounce there and 1-3 could easily be 3-1."We go 8 for 17 from the free-throw line against Davidson and miss a whole bunch of easy shots,'' Huggins said. "And then we maybe kind of got the Oklahoma game going the way we wanted it to go and we throw the ball to them a couple of times and miss some more free throws. It isn't good, but it isn't as bad as [it seems].
"Things are never as good as you think they are and they're never as bad as you think they are. We're going to be all right.''In order to be all right, though, some things are going to have to change. West Virginia is shooting just 39.8 percent from the field, 25.8 percent on 3-pointers and 65.6 percent on free throws. As bad as all those percentages are, they are far worse in the three losses. The Mountaineers shot 52.9 percent and made 5 of 9 3s and 10 of 14 free throws in the win over Marist.West Virginia is also fouling too much - big men Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray and Kevin Noreen have each fouled out of a game - and have six more turnovers (51) than assists.Those are all areas that have to be addressed, as well as the one that Huggins was certain would be a team strength this season. Because of a deep pool of guards and overall depth, he wants to run the floor more than he has in his five previous seasons at West Virginia and get easy baskets.
Those haven't come, nor has the outside shooting hoped for from players like sophomore Jabarie Hinds, transfer Matt Humphrey and freshman Terry Henderson. Those three have taken almost 70 percent of the team's 3-pointers, but combined to make only 30.2 percent (13 of 43)."Against Oklahoma, Jabarie makes three of his first four shots and then misses his last six,'' Huggins said. "Dom [Rutledge] misses a wide-open layup and then we have three 2-on-1s and don't finish any of them."And the crazy thing about it, because we were going to try to play faster, we've worked more on 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s and 4-on-3s than we have since I've been here.''
There should be plenty of those opportunities tonight against VMI, which is 10th in the country in scoring at 85.3 points per game, and obviously tends to play at a fast pace.A win, of course, would be great medicine for the Mountaineers, who after tonight have a week off before the annual game with Marshall in Charleston next Wednesday. That begins a rapid-fire stretch of six games in 18 days before the Christmas break. Going into that on a three-game losing streak would not be ideal.Regardless of the outcome tonight, though, Huggins isn't afraid of losing his team in a string of disheartening losses."We're not going to lose it. In 31 years we've never lost it,'' Huggins said. "You've got to learn from your mistakes."If it was just one guy you could fix it. But it's been a whole bunch of different guys. But we're learning. We did a better job of running offense in practice [Monday] than we have all year. We've got to score points.''BRIEFLY: West Virginia played VMI just two years ago in Charleston, winning 82-66. That was the first game between the teams since 1969. To illustrate just how long ago that was, that previous game was at the Mountaineer Field House.
But the two teams do have a long history because both were members of the Southern Conference in the 1950s and '60s. West Virginia owns a 42-5 advantage in the series.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.