By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Quite simply, it’s now or never for West Virginia University.
“Right now it’s tournament time,” said guard Eron Harris, and in truth there really isn’t any other way to put it.
WVU has five games left in the regular season with the Big 12 Tournament looming after that.
Its record right now is a very ordinary 15-11 along with an equally ordinary 7-6 in the Big 12 Conference.
The Mountaineers have run out of wiggle room.
Had they beaten Texas the last time out in Austin, they almost certainly would be able to proclaim themselves an NCAA Tournament team for it would have given them three wins over ranked teams in four games, but instead they were battered into oblivion.
The Longhorns took no prisoners as they controlled the inside, outscoring WVU 46-14 in the paint while winning, 88-71.
WVU needed the week off they have had before returning at 1:30 p.m. against Baylor in the Coliseum on Saturday as much to heal as to get ready for the next game.
“The biggest thing we could do (during the week off) was get some rest and get healed up,” coach Bob Huggins said. “Everyone has some bumps and bruises and is nicked up. It’s a good time to hopefully get healed up for a big stretch run.”
You like to tell your players that you have to play them one at a time and that all that matters is Baylor, and while that’s true, a realist knows that a lot more is needed to salvage this season.
“We’re at about that point,” Huggins conceded. “We have to win games. It’s no secret. We won some games and got ourselves back in the hunt and then didn’t play very well at Texas. Now we have to win games. It’s no secret we put ourselves behind the 8-ball.”
He knows it. His players know it, and they know it because he tells them exactly where they stand and what they need.
“We talk about it. I think they want to know. If I was a player, I’d want to know. I don’t want them to come up to me and say I wish you would have told me,” he said.
They have to start by beating a Baylor team that has won three straight games after seemingly letting its season slip away from it.
But then that’s how the Big 12 has been all season. Would anyone want to have bet that Oklahoma State with Marcus Smart, last year’s Player of the Year who stunned everyone by returning, would seem to be on top of the world only to lose seven straight games?
Would you imagine WVU beating Iowa State to death, only to have it come back do likewise to Texas, right after Texas had torn WVU from limb to limb?
“I think when you only have 10 teams it magnifies it,” Huggins said. “It’s kind of like I said before; the Big East was terrific, teams 1 through 10, but the other six never had a chance, so everybody kind of beat up on them.
“In this league it’s almost like an NCAA game all the time. When you are not really, really good — I mean you’re good, but not really good — it comes down to matchups.”
And WVU matching up with Iowa State is different than matching up with Texas, just as Texas matching up with WVU is different than matching up with Iowa State.
“If you really look, some teams play really good against other teams. I think that has a lot to do with the matchups for the winning team being advantageous against that particular team,” Huggins said.
And so the stretch run begins Saturday with Baylor, followed by a trip to Iowa State, where the Cyclones play great and will be out looking to avenge the embarrassing loss they suffered in Morgantown.
Then comes a home game against bottom feeder TCU before going to Oklahoma for what figures to be a bitter war and then the final regular-season game of the season at home against league-leading Kansas.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.