Rare losing season looms for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - With four regular-season games and the Big 12 tournament remaining, West Virginia's basketball team is in largely uncharted territory.
It has been a full decade since the Mountaineers last finished a season with more losses than wins.
It's been nearly three decades since Bob Huggins last suffered that fate, in his first season at Akron in 1984-85.
Only once, in his 14-16 debut at Walsh in 1980-81, has Huggins lost more than the 14 games his current team has lost so far.
Yet despite all of that - or perhaps because of it - Huggins doesn't believe motivation is an issue with the Mountaineers. Whether he's right or not might be the difference between an interesting final few weeks of the season and merely playing out the string.
Next up for West Virginia (13-14, 6-8 Big 12) is tonight's game with Baylor (16-11, 7-7) at the Coliseum. The 8 p.m. contest will be televised by the Big 12 Network (locally on WQCW).
"I don't know if motivation is [an issue],'' Huggins said Tuesday. "But I'd be less than honest if I didn't tell you I think there's been times when, because it's happened so much, that we've kind of put our heads down and made it worse.''
Indeed, as the season crawls along without any consistent spark or any real signs of turning things around, there have been plenty of games in which things have started to go bad for the Mountaineers and they have seemed to all but give up. In fact, of late that might be the only consistent thing West Virginia has done.
It certainly happened Saturday, when Oklahoma State dominated the final 15 minutes of what was until then a four-point game. It happened the game before that, too, when Kansas State built a 20-point lead.
And it happened when WVU and Baylor met just two weeks ago in Waco, Texas. The Mountaineers were within four points at halftime, but they allowed freshman big man Rico Gathers to roam free inside for 22 points and junior shooting guard Brady Heslip to make six 3-pointers and eventually lost by 20, 80-60.
"We did that at Baylor,'' Huggins said of the tendency to let things get away and then not fight back. "We threw the ball to them a couple of times and didn't get it in bounds. There isn't any question we were standing there with our heads down. And then they make a 3, and we don't get back and they make another 3.
"I'm sure that's frustration, but I don't think we've gone into a game that way.''
The Mountaineers certainly can't afford to go into any with a bad attitude or without motivation from here on out. They still have a chance to salvage at least something close to a break-even season and perhaps work an invitation to the NIT or the CBI, but they can avoid no slip-ups.
The most likely path to that would be winning the final two home games, tonight against Baylor and a week from Saturday against Iowa State. Although the Mountaineers have yet to beat any of the teams ahead of them in the Big 12 standings, those two might be plausible. Baylor has lost three in a row and six of eight and is only a game ahead of WVU in the league standings. Iowa State, meanwhile, is 19-9 but just 4-8 away from Hilton Coliseum in Ames.
WVU's other two games are Saturday at Kansas and next Wednesday at Oklahoma.
A split of the final four games would leave the Mountaineers 15-16 heading into the Big 12 tournament, and if they play and win a first-round game there - the bottom four teams face off on the first day - they could finish within a game of .500, which might be enough to get an invitation to the CBI.
A loss tonight to Baylor, though, would make that an even longer shot than it already is, which is why the Mountaineers have to play motivated and, when adversity strikes, be able to handle it.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.