WVU coach Bob Huggins makes a point to Mountaineer guard Gary Browne.
LUBBOCK, Texas - If West Virginia still has any chance of making something out of this torturous-to-date basketball season - and Bob Huggins firmly insists that it does - the Mountaineers have to start now.Time isn't running out, it's already gone. With two thirds of the regular season in the books and the team sitting two games under .500, there's virtually no margin for error remaining.So what's the best recipe for success? Well, playing four of the next five games against teams joined with WVU at the bottom of the Big 12 standings is a great place to start. But not only do the Mountaineers actually have to go out and put a streak together - something they've not done yet - but they have to keep it going.A short burst of success at this point isn't enough.
"We're in a position where we have to win more than just those,'' Huggins said of the games the next few weeks against similarly positioned teams. "That would be a great start, but we have to win those and then a lot more.''It starts today when West Virginia (9-11 overall, 2-5 Big 12) faces Texas Tech (9-9, 2-5) at United Spirit Arena here. The 1:30 p.m. game will be televised by the Big 12 Network (locally on WQCW).After that, the Mountaineers face Texas, TCU, Baylor and Texas Tech in order. Of those, only Baylor is not struggling around .500 overall and none have more than two Big 12 wins.What happens over that stretch will determine just what this team has to play for after that, when the teams from the top of the league reappear on the schedule. Does West Virginia have any right to be talking about the postseason or are the Mountaineers simply what their record says they are 20 games into the season - a team that belongs among the basement dwellers?Huggins insists it is the former. In fact, he optimistically proclaims that not only is this team capable of getting into the postseason conversation (NIT?), but into NCAA tournament discussions.
Really, he does."We can still make a run,'' Huggins said Friday, just before practicing and then heading for Texas. "We could conceivably get ourselves on the bubble or better.''Well, yes, the Mountaineers could. They've done nothing this season that speaks to an NCAA tournament resume, but the end of the schedule is loaded with opportunities. There's the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, too.Then again, little they have done this season suggests that they will. Any encouraging performance or spell to date generally has been followed by an almost mind-numbing lack of focus or execution, thus instances like last week's at Oklahoma State, where in a matter of less than 20 game minutes West Virginia went from leading by 13 points to trailing by 19 and losing badly.There is, though, reason for hope right now. In WVU's most recent game, Monday at home against No 2 Kansas, the Mountaineers did a lot of things right, trailed by just two deep into the second half and lost by just five points to a team that hasn't lost since November.
In fact, West Virginia has done something that few teams have this season, which is play well and show signs of life against two teams ranked No. 1 in the country. Besides the Kansas game (the Jayhawks are No. 1 in the coaches poll this week), the Mountaineers staged a solid rally against Associated Press No. 1 Michigan back in December.
Certainly a team that can compete with two No. 1s can put together something at some point during the season."If we'd played like this in all of our games, who knows how many more we might have won,'' center Aaric Murray said after the Kansas game. "We have to do it now. We don't have much time.''In Texas Tech, West Virginia will face a team that has struggled to do much right this season, not that it's much of a surprise given that the Red Raiders changed coaches in September. When Billy Gillespie resigned under pressure last fall, Chris Walker was elevated to the job on an interim basis. Walker is at least somewhat familiar with West Virginia, having graduated from Villanova in 1992 and serving two brief stints there as an assistant coach since 2001.He also has a few things to work with. Huggins said he really likes Tech's three inside players - 6-foot-11 junior Dejan Kravic (9.7 points per game), 6-10 Kader Tapsoba and 6-8 sophomore Jordan Tolbert. Tolbert had 18 points and 13 rebounds when last Tech played, a 73-57 loss at Texas. All shoot above 50 percent from the floor."They're efficient around the basket,'' Huggins said. "They take good shots and they make a lot that they shoot.''So, too, is 6-7 junior Jaye Crockett, who doesn't start but comes off the bench and leads the team in scoring (13.1), rebounding (8.0) and minutes played.
Still, Tech has lost five of six since opening Big 12 play with a victory at still-winless TCU and has really just one quality win this season. The Raiders took a 56-51 home win over Iowa State 10 days ago.Part of the Red Raiders' problem is that they can't shoot from 3-point range. At 26.5 percent, they are one of the few teams in the country worse at making 3s than West Virginia. Tech is 340th out of 347 Division I schools. West Virginia is 322nd.But today WVU could again go into a game shorthanded. Freshman Terry Henderson is still not 100 percent after tweaking his back again, and Huggins said Friday that he doubted Matt Humphrey would play because of a shoulder that is swelling.Still, despite having lost five of six, being two games under .500 and everything else that ails this team, Huggins claims that it's not difficult to get his players believing that the season is long from over."Everybody wants to believe they've got some hope,'' Huggins said. "I don't think that's a hard sell.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.