MORGANTOWN — There was an NCAA tournament game on television Sunday, the sort of thing that used to be common around here and the sort of thing that, given what we learned Monday and what we might learn in a few days about players and their future plans, might not be common for a while longer.
The game was played between a pair of historic programs, one being Wichita State, the first team to start 35-0, and the other being Kentucky. It made for fantastic theater and felt every bit like a Final Four game and not a Round of 32 game. What made it so special was that a fierce competition decided on the final possession was waged by teams that couldn’t do things more differently.
In one corner, you had the Shockers, who arrived at that stage and openly admitted they weren’t as talented as Kentucky, but never once relented across the 94 feet and 40 minutes the game was played.
“We didn’t even send a form letter to any of them,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “I am not sure, I haven’t checked all the way down with the walk‑ons, but we didn’t send any form letters. I didn’t even know who their players were, honestly. I didn’t watch them in AAU, and that’s a different level of recruiting. We don’t deal with that very often.”
Not only that, but Marshall was willing to bet that the Wildcats hadn’t sent any of his players a form letter, either. And that’s because in the other corner you’d find Kentucky, a true blue blood with the smoothest of operators who can go to the top of the recruiting rankings, circle his targets and strike. Maybe he had a player or a starting five for only a year, but so what?
“If the choice is talent or experience, I’m taking talent,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, not last week, but in 2011 after knocking WVU out of the NCAA tournament and gaining a fraction of revenge for an Elite Eight loss to the Mountaineers the previous March.
This wasn’t Good vs. Evil or Right vs. Wrong. Both coaches are right. Both are good. Neither should apologize for recruiting and winning the way they do, which makes this whole conversation seem pointless, right?
Maybe, until you consider this: Bob Huggins isn’t doing one or the other right now. He’s doing neither. He has not strutted out of recruiting battles with many prizes. He has not had commits reach or stay on campus. He has not had players stick around, which is especially important because Huggins confesses he won’t pull all the players off the top shelf and likes developing teenagers into men.
That lack of direction explains one postseason tournament win and no conference tournament victories since beating the Wildcats to get to the 2010 Final Four and a 49-49 record the past three seasons. That lack of continuity is what has to be explored and repaired as the team goes forward.
The irony of ironies? That one postseason tournament win came in the 2011 NCAA tournament when Dalton Pepper made the most significant plays of his entire WVU career in succession, stealing three straight passes at the top of a 1-3-1 zone and turning them into a dunk, a layup and then a free throw for a teammate to save the Mountaineers against Clemson.
A few weeks later, Pepper transferred.
He wasn’t the first or the last and isn’t even part of the road we’re about to travel.
In the first three seasons to follow the 2010 Final Four, Huggins added 16 players to his roster as recruits or transfers. Eron Harris, the second-leading scorer and best 3-point shooter on the 2013-14 team, on Monday became the 11th player to transfer, be dismissed or fail to qualify academically or medically.
That doesn’t count Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon, two of the five recruits this season, who both were ineligible.
It’s a number that ought to make you gasp. It’s staggering, perhaps literally, because it’s impossible to make strides when the players who are supposed to do it for you instead keep a turnstile spinning. Not all of the losses carry the weight of Harris. Some proved they didn’t have what was required to play for Huggins or at this level or both. Sometimes a player and a coach need a fresh start, though that shouldn’t dismiss the fact they were nevertheless brought to WVU.
What of those who stayed? Dominique Rutledge was a good junior college recruit undone by a knee injury shortly after his arrival, but he put in two decent seasons. Kevin Noreen is a model citizen and teammate. Gary Browne and Terry Henderson have had big games and nice moments. Juwan Staten’s transfer looked like a loss last season, but is certainly a win after a first-team all-Big 12 campaign this season.
Yet Staten is going to enter the NBA Draft and do so with every inclination to stay in and realize a lifelong dream. He’ll graduate in May and would know who and what he’d be coming back to. Say what you will of Harris’ propensity to shoot or pout or not defend, the Mountaineers are not as inviting today as they were Sunday. If Staten stays in the draft, if others follow him and Harris out the door, the Mountaineers are in deep trouble next season.
Maybe Staten stays. Perhaps Henderson offsets the loss of Harris as a better defender and rebounder and a more versatile scorer. It’s possible Holton is the type of power forward Huggins has wanted for two years who can score outside and control the glass inside. It’s certainly believable Huggins and all his talent and experience can find a formula. But it definitely seems like a whole lot of supposition for the guy who was supposed to have it fixed, but might be picking up the pieces again.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.