KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Terry Henderson is in pretty much uncharted territory these days and it has little to do with West Virginia's first appearance in the Big 12 basketball tournament, which begins tonight here at the Sprint Center.It has everything to do with the agonizing season that has preceded this event."Nobody likes to lose. I don't like to lose,'' Henderson said. "I didn't come here as a loser. I'm used to winning championships and being on winning streaks. I'm not used to losing.''But lose this West Virginia team did. By the time all is said and done - assuming that both a Big 12 tournament championship and a national title are not in the cards - the Mountaineers will have lost 19 times this winter. Only two other WVU basketball teams have ever matched that. Just one - the 8-20 meltdown that was Gale Catlett's on-again, off-again final season in 2002 - ever lost more.
Don't, however, attempt to compare this year's Mountaineers with that dysfunctional, Jonathan Hargett-led group. That was a team that, after winning seven of its first nine games, proceeded to lose 18 of its final 19. Catlett took leaves of absence during which his nephew, Drew Catlett, coached the team, only to see Gale make a surprise appearance at one game and then leave again. Ten of that team's final 13 losses were by double digits, including a 92-65 blowout at Pitt in the last game at Fitzgerald Field House.That was also the Mountaineers' last game that season because they had to qualify in order to make the Big East tournament. Needless to say, they did not.But while that season came to a premature conclusion mourned by no one, this team 11 years later is still fighting. Yes, the Mountaineers have lost six straight - the longest skid by a WVU team since that 2002 bunch lost nine in a row twice - but three of the last four have gone down to the final minutes.In truth, there have been very few games this season in which the Mountaineers were not competitive. And that was against a schedule that included four games against teams that at some point during the season were ranked No. 1, 16 games against teams that are either in the NCAA tournament or, at worst, on the at-large bubble, and 15 games against teams that won at least 20 games.Meanwhile, no team from any power conference - and only a handful from mid-majors - played fewer home games than WVU's 14.All of which is reason for at least some level of optimism as No. 8 seed West Virginia (13-18, 6-12 Big 12) begins play in the Big 12 tournament with today's 7 p.m. game against No. 9 Texas Tech (10-19, 3-15). The game will be televised by the Big 12 Network (locally on WQCW)."The way I've always thought of it is there's three seasons in basketball - the regular season, the postseason and the championships season,'' Henderson said. "We just finished the first season, that's all. Now we'll go into the postseason and hopefully get to the championship season.''Well, OK, so maybe that's a stretch to consider. After all, a win tonight against the Red Raiders - WVU is 2-0 against them this season - puts West Virginia into the unenviable position of facing top-seeded Kansas only a few hours later in Thursday's 3 p.m. quarterfinals.The point that the Mountaineers are trying to hold on to is that this isn't a team that has been easily swept aside by almost anyone this season. It's a team that has shown flashes of potential and, on occasion, even brilliance.If they can show those signs again, then why does their fate in the Big 12 tournament have to be a foregone conclusion?"I'm hoping we play a little bit more consistent,'' coach Bob Huggins said. "We just have spells where we just kind of don't do anything and get down and we then we play pretty well in spots. We just have to be able to put that together for an extended period of time.''
That time, though, is running out. West Virginia's next loss will almost certainly be its last, and then it will be time to step back, re-evaluate things and make changes before next season."We've got the tools and pieces to win,'' sophomore Jabarie Hinds said. "We just didn't put it together. I don't know why, but I know we have the tools."We just have to have a new attitude and leave the season behind us. We can start over again.''Again, unlike that 2002 team, this one hasn't just given up. It's not content to just play out the string."It's not over,'' said Deniz Kilicli, the only fourth-year senior on the roster. "If we quit, it's over. But if we don't quit, you never know. You never know.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.