KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No. 18 WVU made its way to the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament on Tuesday.
The Mountaineers attended classes early in the morning, flew to Kansas City in the afternoon and practiced later at nearby Rockhurst University.
It’s a new season for the Mountaineers. There are no more true away courts to face. But the goal at the Sprint Center is the same as it’s been toward the end of the regular season: improve the NCAA tournament seed.
West Virginia is a shoo-in to make the 68-team field. Yet at what seed? Even Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins struggles with understanding the formula. He’s gone as far as wondering aloud if the league tournaments make a difference.
“I don’t know how much the conference tournament enhances your tournament seed,” he said. “It depends on the committee. There have been times when it’s really helped your seed and there have been years when it’s had no effect.”
What he does know is he wants his team to win.
“I’ve been doing this 41 years now and I’ve never ever gone into [a league tournament] not wanting to win,” he said. “If you’re going to play, try to win. Somebody a few years ago said they were happy they lost the first round because it gave them more rest. But in 2010 we won the Big East tournament and it was grueling. And we played really well in the tournament [playing in the Final Four]. I’d rather go in on a high than on a low.”
Huggins was sitting in the Coliseum the day he spoke on the subject. And he was asked to reflect on the Mountaineers’ season as tournament time approached.
“It depends on the day,” he said. “We got through the flu thing. We got everybody back and healthy now. I think we’re OK.
“It comes down to this — and I know it sounds really simple — but we’re going to guard for the most part,” he added. “We’re going to rebound for the most part. We just can’t miss open shots constantly like we have. You have an open shot, you’ve got to make it.
“You watch teams in the NCAA tournament, they advance because they make shots. You watch our game against Gonzaga a year ago and there were some extenuating circumstances, but the reality is we missed 40 shots. Forty. That’s a lot of shots to miss now. And we still had a chance to win. We did the other things pretty well.”
Fast forward to this week. Huggins again was asked about his team, specifically about its struggle to find consistency. And his mantra was much the same.
“I’ve said for months we’ve got to make shots,” Huggins said. “Going back to the Texas game, our two best shooters — Lamont [West] and Beetle [Bolden] — had open shots. Neither one of them went down. They’re not going to make them all — nobody makes them all — but you have to make them when you need them.”
He did tweak his team’s assessment a bit, saying “we haven’t guarded the way we traditionally guard. And we haven’t rebounded the ball the way we traditionally have.”
But then he went back to shot-making. Nationally, Saint Mary’s is No. 1, hitting 51.5 percent of its shots. Arizona is No. 3 at 51. WVU is No. 237, converting but 43.6 percent.
“You’ve got to make open shots [at tournament time] because you don’t get very many,” Huggins said. “We had open shots in the Texas game and didn’t make them. We had open shots 3 feet from the basket and didn’t score. You’ve got to make shots when you have them.”
In the overtime loss to Texas, WVU converted 48.6 percent of its shots in the first half. That percentage, however, fell to 42.3 percent in the second half. It then dropped off the table to 23.1 percent (3 of 13) in overtime. What’s stunning is the Mountaineers took 74 shots in that game to UT’s 51. The Longhorns, however, hit 4 of 5 shots in OT.
“For what this group has done, we’re not a very good transition team,” Huggins said. “You would think as much as we play in transition, we would be. But we’re not.”
West Virginia, though, is still No. 18 in both major polls. The Mountaineers are still 22-9, playing in what many consider the nation’s best conference. And this week signals a new fresh start — albeit with a familiar goal.
“We’re just trying to win,” Huggins said. “The biggest thing you can do for the NCAA tournament is enhance your seed. And you can’t enhance your seed unless you win.”
Thursday’s matchup with Baylor will begin at 9 p.m. on ESPNU.