"You know, when I came back I wanted to make this one of the premier basketball programs in the country,'' Huggins said. "If I said to you, 'Name the premier basketball programs in the country,' they're sold out all the time. I mean, that's the truth. They're sold out all the time. And a lot of them have 18,000 seats and it doesn't matter who they're playing. And that's when you become somebody. We've still got our work to do.''
Again, West Virginia has managed to come a long way, and not just under Huggins. John Beilein was hired in 2003 and his third game, against IUPUI, drew just 3,539 to the Coliseum. The average that year was just under 7,000, but it increased in each of his four years to 10,402 his final season. After a drop in his first year - again, what's that about? - the average under Huggins has risen each year to last year's record 12,377.
Remember what it was like at the end of the Gale Catlett era? His last three seasons at the Coliseum - interrupted by the asbestos year of no home games - the average home crowds were 6,072, 6,404 and 6,491, or roughly the gathering that seemed rather embarrassing on Tuesday night and was the smallest crowd in the last 43 home dates. It took the Sweet 16 team of 1998 to draw an average over 8,000 per game in Catlett's last decade. As for crowds of 10,000 or more, Catlett's teams drew seven in his last five years.
Last year Huggins' team was 579 paying customers short (414 for a game against Rutgers and 165 for a game with Duquesne) of drawing 10,000-plus in 14 straight games.
The question, though, is this: Is that as good as it gets? And does it take arguably the best team in school history - and certainly the most successful one that ever played its games at the 41-year-old Coliseum - to get to that point?
Well, this year's crowd suggests the answer is yes. West Virginia drew 12,707 for an opener that was conveniently scheduled the night before a home football game with Cincinnati, when one has to figure a lot of those folks left the game and went back to their RVs in and around Mountaineer Field. The next two games combined drew 13,833.
That, of course, is the biggest issue West Virginia faces in drawing crowds. West Virginia might well have a large fan base, but it's a far-flung base and it takes something extra to get them here. There are only about 1.8 million people in this state. Morgantown's population is less than 30,000, although the number essentially doubles when WVU is in session. Driving to games from almost anywhere else is problematic.
Last year, West Virginia ranked No. 27 among more than 300 Division I teams in attendance. No one ranked above WVU was drawing from a smaller local area. For example, Kentucky and Louisville ranked Nos. 1 and 3, respectively. Another small state, right? Yes, but there are 270,000 people in and around Lexington and more than half a million in and around Louisville. The population of Syracuse (No. 2 on the attendance list) is more than five times that of Morgantown.
Perhaps the most surprising school on the list ahead of WVU was Creighton, the only real mid-major in the group. And Creighton is in Nebraska, which actually has a smaller population than West Virginia. But Creighton is also in Omaha, which has more than 400,000 people, nearly a quarter of the state's population.
So in other words, West Virginia is up against it trying to consistently draw big crowds. Huggins knows that.
"I understand our people have to come a long way. I understand that,'' Huggins said. "But you know, give your tickets to somebody else. I hear all the time about people who wish they could come to the games. Well, there's a whole bunch of them out there. Call Jerrod [Calhoun, the school's director of basketball operations]. He'll figure out who to give them to. Give them to somebody. Just fill the seats. If you can't come, give them to somebody that will come.
"I do understand you can't come to all the games. I understand that. But get somebody there or let us get somebody there.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.