On Tuesday, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter.
As of Tuesday, the West Virginia men’s basketball team has six weeks and a couple of days to determine how the rest of its season is going to go.
An upcoming six-game stretch will go a long way in doing just that.
The NCAA Tournament is scheduled to begin exactly six weeks from Thursday. I was asked by a friend on Monday what I thought WVU’s seeding will look like and, well, if you have any idea, you’re doing a lot better than me.
I’d say No. 5 or No. 6 seed sounds pretty reasonable, but seven games from now that humble projection could be drastically different in either direction.
Going into Tuesday night’s game at Iowa State, the Mountaineers were 11-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12, arguably the toughest conference in college basketball along with the Big Ten. And WVU is about to find out just how brutal this league can be.
The next six games are as follows: home against No. 23 Kansas, at No. 13 Texas Tech, a home date with No. 9 Oklahoma, back-to-back home and road games with No. 2 Baylor and a trip to No. 6 Texas. If there’s ever been a tougher six-game stretch for WVU, even dating back to the Big East days, I don’t remember it.
Frankly, it’s time for this group of Mountaineers to decide just what it is going to be. Because while this team is fairly young in terms of class — forward Gabe Osabuohien and guard Taz Sherman are the team’s only seniors — it’s not so young anymore in terms of playing experience. Derek Culver, Emmitt Matthews and Jordan McCabe are all in year three with the Mountaineers. Deuce McBride, Sean McNeil, Osabuohien and Sherman are all in their second seasons as major contributors.
It’s time. And rest assured, coach Bob Huggins knows that too.
That’s why he’s called out his team without calling out his team in each of his last two press conferences, one after an 85-80 loss to Florida on Saturday and the other via Zoom call on Monday.
There have been flashes of brilliance this season and there have been head-scratching lapses, often within the parameters of a single game, half, heck, even within a couple of possessions.
Over the past few days, Huggins has used words like “competitiveness,” “effort,” and pointed to defense as being a matter of wanting to. A matter of choice.
I think Huggins is right where most fans are at this point — encouraged by offensive outputs after the departure of Oscar Tshiebwe, yet frustrated by inconsistency and stretches of momentary indifference that have cost the Mountaineers games.
WVU has all of the pieces needed to be among the country’s best teams. Culver is a certified beast in the post, when he’s on. McBride is a budding star at point guard, when he’s on. McNeil, McBride and Sherman are all assassins from the perimeter, when they’re on.
WVU is deep. It has a future Hall of Fame coach. It’s overcome adversity, and outside of Jalen Bridges, who was with the team in a redshirt season a year ago, and freshman post Seny N’Diaye, its rotation is seasoned with at least one prior season if not two in the Big 12 Conference.
Kansas is as gettable as it has been in a long, long time. The Mountaineers have already beaten Texas Tech once and feel like they should’ve pulled out wins in a 72-70 loss to Texas and a 75-71 defeat to Oklahoma. As for Baylor? Well, the Bears are pretty darn good, entering Tuesday at 16-0.
But it’s also a Baylor team that WVU defeated 76-64 to unknowingly end its COVID-19-shortened season a year ago. Sherman, Culver, Osabuohien, McNeil, McBride, McCabe and Matthews all played in that game. It’s there. I know it. You know it. Huggins knows it.
And that’s what’s made the roller-coaster ride of 2020 and now 2021 so exhilarating and frustrating all at the same time. It’s not that West Virginia has been bad. To the contrary, there are a whole bunch of teams in college basketball that would trade the 17th-ranked Mountaineers records, rosters and rankings.
But with all of the great Mountaineer teams of the past 15 years or so, ones that made runs to the Sweet 16 or deeper, there were moments where the switch seemed to flip, where those teams took on the persona of John Beilein or Bob Huggins.
This team is good, but it’s not a Huggins team, at least not yet. Not giving up 87 and 85 points in back-to-back games. Not with a rebounding margin of minus-12 over the last three contests combined.
On Tuesday, Phil chose snowfall over sunshine. And while Mountaineer fans are hoping for a brighter outlook on the rest of basketball season, starting Saturday, WVU will begin to make its stand and its decision.
For better or for worse.