COLUMBIA, Mo. - Last week, when Bob Huggins was asked about the absence of fannies in the seats at his West Virginia basketball team's home games, he took it pretty much in stride, but with a small caveat."When we go to Missouri there's going to be 14,000 there,'' he said.Well, not exactly.The Mountaineers indeed played at Missouri Thursday night. Pretty much got blown away by a decent Mizzou team, too, losing an 80-71 game that seemed a lot more like 800-71.
But no, there weren't 14,000 watching. In fact, the announced crowd of 7,292 was less than half the 15,061 capacity of Mizzou Arena. Truth is, no Missouri game this season had drawn more than the 6,000 to 7,000 range, and this is a team that Thursday won its 23 straight home game.All of which points merely to the fact that it's hard to draw in a lot of places these days. But yes, it seems particularly difficult at WVU.To date, of course, fans are staying away in droves. West Virginia's opening-night crowd for a game with Mount St. Mary's - 8,336 - was actually a bit stunning. No doubt that figure was pushed upward because it was on the eve of a football game with Texas, and so bored Friday RVers found something to do. There was also the newness factor, I suppose. Everyone's curious at the start.In the four home games since, however, the average crowd has been just over 5,150. A year ago, during a 13-19 season that even Huggins a few days ago referred to as "that debacle,'' only twice did WVU draw crowds of less than 7,000, once because of a snowstorm.Personally, I've been mystified by crowd numbers a lot over the years, both high and low ones. Consider that twice this season WVU has drawn the smallest crowd in nine years - first 4,814 for Georgia Southern and then one-downing it Monday with 4,692 for Loyola. Those are notable because the low-water mark the last decade was 4,323 for a game with New Hampshire in December of 2004.Here's the part that's always baffled me: That 2004 team was 7-0 at the time and on the way to a 10-0 start, with a coach and a style and a roster everyone seemed to love. It was a team that by season's end would miss a trip to the Final Four only because it couldn't hold on to a 20-point lead against Louisville in Albuquerque, N.M.I get that some days or some opponents or just plain circumstances all play into crowd numbers, but eight days after 4,323 came for New Hampshire, 13,956 showed up for a game against George Washington. Yes, GW was in the Top 25, but it was also during Christmas break while the football team was in Jacksonville, Fla., for the Gator Bowl.In other words, I'm not sure any alarms should be going off about sagging attendance. Maybe 10,000 show up for Gonzaga on Tuesday. Truth is, this is a team that's been a lot of fun to watch so far, Thursday's loss notwithstanding."We've got great fans. There's just 4,000 of them,'' Huggins said the other night, trying to put a politically correct face on all those empty seats. "Some teams have 16,000, we have 4,000. I keep hearing this team is exciting. It must not be exciting enough.''nn
As the SEC and its many unapologetic media shills continue their PR war insisting that the league's champion should be granted automatic entrance into the national title game no matter its record, I can't help but try to put Missouri and Texas A&M into perspective.
First of all, understand that I'm not going to argue that the SEC isn't the best conference in the country. Don't even go there. You might be able to come up with all kinds of stats and records and comparative scores that attempt to prove - and might well succeed proving - that the SEC isn't as dominant as the league would have you believe. But if you do, I can apply the same reasoning and downgrade every other power conference to a much greater extent. Annually, the most difficult league in which to win consistently is the SEC. Period.But didn't Texas A&M and Missouri go into the SEC just a year ago universally seen as being overmatched, particularly Mizzou? "If you thought it was a struggle in the Big 12,'' all were told, "just wait until you have to play Alabama and LSU and Florida and Georgia and, etc., etc., etc.''And then in year one in the SEC Texas A&M beats Alabama and its freshman quarterback rips up the league and wins the Heisman Trophy. In year two, Missouri is a blown 17-0 fourth-quarter lead over South Carolina away from being 12-0. Missouri.Now this is in no way an attempt to prop up the Big 12, from which both schools bolted, but rather to point out that two schools that were really nothing special (sometimes good, never dominant) in their old power conference instantly became players in the SEC.Granted, there might be a lot of extenuating circumstances, but the point is that the SEC constantly preaches that teams with gaudy records elsewhere could never duplicate those playing in their conference. A&M and Missouri are proving them wrong.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.