MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It has been perhaps the longest and most frustrating season of Bob Huggins' coaching career.The losses, the travel, the infuriating lapses interrupted by all-too-brief glimpses of potential.More likely than not, it is about to come to a merciful end. West Virginia begins play Wednesday night in the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The Mountaineers might well end play that night, too. If not then, surely the end will come shortly after that.There has been little to indicate that this is a team capable of lasting very long in a lose-and-go-home format. And unlike almost every other season of Huggins' 31-year coaching career (23 straight, in fact) when the Mountaineers lose in the Big 12 tournament, that will be it.No NCAA tournament. No NIT. No nothin'.You would think Huggins can't wait for it to end, and in a way that might be true. After all, there's recruiting to be done, an offseason to start, so that this doesn't happen again.Huggins, though, doesn't sound like a coach who thinks it is about to end. Despite all that has happened, he still believes there can be a light at the end of the tunnel that is not an oncoming train."I think we're capable. I think we're capable of playing with just about anybody on a given night,'' Huggins said Monday. "I still think we can make a run.''
OK, so maybe he's the only one who thinks that. Or maybe not."We've got the tools and the pieces to win,'' freshman guard Terry Henderson said. "We can still do it.''The truth is, there have been glimmers of hope from this team. It has played well in stretches against most of the best teams it has faced this season. Even of late, when simply playing out the string might be expected, it hasn't happened. The Mountaineers cut a 27-point deficit to four against Iowa State on Saturday.Huggins looks at that and doesn't see a team that has quit on him.
"I think when you get down by 27 in the second half and cut it to four, I think obviously you still think you can win,'' Huggins said. "This hasn't been the greatest practice team I've ever had, but they haven't been the worst, either. I think their attitude is still fine.''In many ways, this team was a victim of circumstances. Sure, there are obvious flaws. Sometimes it's ball-handling, at other times shooting, at still others defensive holes. But it was also a team that faced some pretty tough obstacles through none of their own doing."We have a team [that was built] for playing in the Big East and the Big East is a whole lot different style of play than the Big 12,'' Huggins said. "We have some guys that obviously didn't play as well as what they thought they were going to play or we thought they were going to play. The travel's been different and I think that's something that we're going to have to find better solutions to. The officiating's different.
"There's a whole lot of things that going from one league to another league become an adjustment for you.''The good news is that in beginning play at the Big 12 tournament West Virginia will face a team, Texas Tech, that struggled even more than did the Mountaineers on their way to a 10-19 record.But even beating Texas Tech for the third time this season is no gimme. That's just the way it is for this West Virginia team. If the Mountaineers play as well as they can play and so do the Red Raiders, WVU wins. It's just that simple.But how this team is going to play from minute to minute, much less from game to game, is always a mystery."We've played well at times. We just haven't been as consistent as what we need to be,'' Huggins said. "I thought we played pretty well in making a run against Iowa State and we played pretty well in spots against Oklahoma. We've just got to be able to put it together."I think if we can put it together we're not that far away from being able to beat some pretty good people.''
At the end of a very long winter, this likely will be the last chance for the Mountaineers to prove that.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.