By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
One game into its Big 12 life, the West Virginia University basketball program finds itself faced with serious challenges.
Nowhere in the coach’s instructional manual is it written that a 7-6 start with a giveaway loss in the conference opener on the home floor before a sellout crowd while looking at following that up with a trip to Texas for game No. 2 should be considered an omen of good things to come.
Freshman Terry Henderson, who did his part to make the situation a better one, scoring 21 points with some torrid first-half shooting that kept WVU from falling completely out of the 67-57 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, had trouble grasping exactly what had happened.
“First Big 12 game, home opener, packed crowd — what more could you ask for?” he said, shaking his head.
“I really thought we were going to pull it out,” he continued.
But there was no one there to carry his heroics of 18 first-half points into the second half and, for the lack of a daintier phrase, they were out-toughed through the second half as the Sooners took one from them in a situation where that just could not be allowed to happen.
And now things get tough!
See, living life in the Big 12 in basketball is a grind, not just on the court, but off it.
Road trips in this conference when your home court is located in West Virginia are just that — road trips.
Until now, the Mountaineers have been cruising through a travel-friendly schedule, one that may have taken them to a lot of far-spread places but given them a week or more in between to get there. True, they opened as far away as you can get in Spokane, Wash., and followed that up in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., but there was a 10-day gap.
Conference play is different, and WVU isn’t in the East Coast-friendly Big East where you went from New York City to Syracuse to Providence to D.C. and so forth.
Now it’s trips to Austin and Lubbock and Lawrence and Oklahoma City and places where you change time zones almost as often as you change underwear and when instead of jumping on a plane after a game and being home after an hour or an hour and a half flight, you spend the night.
This next trip to Texas isn’t a terrible problem with school still out, but consider that they play a rather important game against Kansas State on Jan. 12, fly to Iowa State for a game on Jan. 16, then fly to Indiana three days later for a game against Purdue.
“It’s not like flying to Philadelphia and back. We’re going to have to adjust things,” coach Bob Huggins admitted. “When you’re playing at 9 o’clock you are getting out of the arena at midnight.”
No sweat then; get to the airport and home by 4 a.m.
But in the Big 12, with that hour time difference and an hour or two added to the flight time, it’s a challenge unlike anything even Huggins has been through before.
“When I was in the Big 12, I was in Kansas (at Kansas State). We were basically an hour from everyone. I’ve never been through this before, this kind of travel on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, non-conference in Cincinnati we played everybody. We played Washington, we played Southern Cal, but it wasn’t like one at home, travel four hours, travel four hours home, then back on the road again for a long flight.”
To increase the irritation, because of the time zone there are seven 9 p.m. (EDT) starts, beginning with Wednesday’s game at Texas. Two of those are Big Monday home games against Kansas on Jan. 28 and Texas on Feb. 4.
“It sucks for us to be here at home on weekdays because people come from so far away. There’s a lot of people who just can’t come and get home to go to work in the morning,” he noted. “Then, on the road, it gets us home late.”
Previously, he liked to get on the plane and fly after a game.
“My plan was to get on a plane and fly home because they don’t sleep on a plane anyway,” Huggins explained. “If you put them in the hotel they are going to sit and talk. They have a bed, but they won’t sleep in it. However, put them on the plane and they’ll sleep on the plane, so why stay overnight?”
The thing is, Huggins isn’t like a lot of coaches. He enjoys getting his team into the national spotlight, no matter what it takes, be it open at midnight at Gonzaga as the Mountaineers did this year or make some sacrifices to play on Big Monday.
“My first year in the Big East I’m sitting there and Mike Bray (of Notre Dame) is complaining about having too many Big Mondays, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ll take all of them.’ You can’t beat that exposure,” he said.
He would later admit, however, “I think we lost two of them, and I’m thinking this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but you think about it and they do that in the NBA every game. All these guys think that’s what they want to do for a living, but you come in the next day and they’re like, wait a minute, man. It’s all what you condition yourself to do.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.