WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - For the record, it is the considered opinion of Juwan Staten that what West Virginia's basketball team endured Saturday afternoon here at Mackey Arena was not the low-water mark of the season to date.The Mountaineers fell behind almost from the start, were never really competitive at all, trailed by as many as 32 points and were completely embarrassed by a mediocre Purdue team, losing 79-52."No,'' Staten said. "Gonzaga was worse than this.''OK, so maybe the sophomore point guard has a point. It seems an eternity since that night in Spokane, Wash., but it's hard to argue that an 84-50 trouncing in the season opener was not even worse than this. And, truth be told, don't you have to toss losing a 15-point lead and losing to Duquesne in the mix for consideration, too?Here's the thing, though. You and I and Staten and Bob Huggins and anyone else can debate the merits of torturous, humiliating losses all we want. The really disturbing part is that the topic is somehow necessary and debatable.That 17 games into the season the deliberation concerning West Virginia's basketball team is over which of its losses was the most mortifying is something few thought possible.Huggins never did."I didn't see this coming,'' Huggins said Saturday, talking not about the loss to Purdue - although that might qualify as well - but the complete breakdown of a team he truly thought had great potential.Indeed, prior to the season Huggins was nearly giddy in his belief that this team had potential. He famously said after West Virginia was picked to finish sixth in its first season in the Big 12 that "if we're the sixth-best team then this is a hell of a league.''
He talked Saturday about it again."I thought we recruited two good freshmen [Terry Henderson and Eron Harris] who have made shots. They're probably our two best shooters,'' Huggins said. "We had Jabarie [Hinds] and Gary [Browne] back after sharing the point guard duties a year ago, and one sitting out [Staten] who practiced every day. So we should have great ball security. We should be able to pass the basketball with three guys who have played point.''Throw in transfer Matt Humphrey, who was supposed to be another shooter to stretch defenses. Throw in not one, not two, but four bigs with Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray, Kevin Noreen and Dominique Rutledge. Throw in Huggins' desire to pick up the pace on both ends and get easy baskets.It all seemed, at least in theory, to be a pretty good mix."If you just look at us, you'd think we're pretty good,'' Huggins said. "I mean, just look at us. We've got some big, strong guys. We've got some quickness on the perimeter. But I just don't know if we know how to play basketball.''
Yeah, well, there's a pretty important intangible, right?
The thing is, Huggins has always been great at teaching that aspect. You don't win 718 games not knowing how. He's been able to take diverse groups and mold them into winners using all sorts of different styles.With this group he's tried just about everything. He's gone big and small. He's played inside out and outside in. He's turned his shooters loose and even given his bigs a shot at using their muscle inside or their skills outside.Nothing has worked. At least not consistently.And so now, 17 games into a 32-game season (including at least one game in the Big 12 tournament), here are the cold, hard facts about where the Mountaineers stand. They are under .500 at 8-9. They have 14 regular-season games to play and at least that one in Kansas City. In order to have a chance even to qualify for the NIT, West Virginia will have to finish at .500 or better. (That's not actually a rule anymore, but the tournament has never taken a sub-.500 team.)That means 16 and probably at least 17 wins. In order to get to 17 wins, West Virginia has to either go 9-5 the rest of the regular season or go 8-6 and win at least a game in Kansas City.Is that possible? Sure. With 14 games to play there is still a chance to right this ship. The Mountaineers have, in fact, actually shown signs of the potential to do so in a few recent games. Of those final 17 games, only three are against teams that are ranked today - two against No. 4 Kansas and one at No. 16 Kansas State.
So it's possible.But the fact of the matter is, despite Huggins' preseason beliefs and despite West Virginia's recent history of churning out NCAA tournament teams (five in a row now and seven in the last eight years, interrupted only by an NIT championship team) and despite anything else, here's the question that begs to be answered:Is this perhaps just not a very good basketball team? Forget the excuses and the areas that can be improved and everything else. Are we just trying to make chicken salad here out of, well, you get the picture."It's sure looking that way, isn't it?'' Huggins said.Right about now it sure is.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.