By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The ending was poetic justice for West Virginia University’s basketball season, an entire year wrapped into 13 seconds of disaster.
You do not go from being a Final Four team to one which finished 13-19 in three years and one that has played one-game below .500 (32-33) over the past two seasons if you cannot write an ending like the one that came along on Wednesday night in Kansas City against Texas Tech, a team the Mountaineers had already beaten twice during the regular season and were supposed to beat rather handily again.
After all, they had a Hall of Fame-bound coach in Bob Huggins working on what was wrong for an entire season. Surely if anyone could iron out the wrinkles in that amount of time it would be him.
Who knew that the only way he could get rid of those wrinkles, however, was to throw away the garment, which is what he’s expected to do during the off-season as he reshapes his team?
But there they were, hoping for a miracle, tied with the Red Raiders after Deniz Kilicli had made but one of two free throws.
A kinder script writer would have turned Kilicli into a hero as a popular senior who was playing what would be his final game ill. He would have let him hit two free throws and Tech to miss and extend the season for what they all can say now would have been an upset of Kansas.
But Kilicli didn’t make both, and so there was far less pressure on Texas Tech as it came down and shot, only to have the enigmatic Aaric Murray, who spent the entire year torturing WVU fans and its coach, Huggins, by mixing incredible moments that including rebounding, shot blocking, passing, shooting 3s and dunking with some of the unimaginable moments, added one more with a block of the shot.
The ball, rather than soaring into the seats, floated to Jamal Williams, who was in perfect position to take yet another shot, this one harmlessly off line.
Game, set, match, you say?
Hardly. Standing there gawking was the aforementioned Murray, who assumed his job was done with the block, and Jabarie Hinds. No block out, which allowed Tech’s Dejan Kravic to take advantage of the season’s final mistake, grab the rebound and put it back for the winning basket.
“I thought time was going to run out before the guy got the shot off,” Murray said. “Then I’m watching, like, ‘I hope he doesn’t make it.’ He didn’t and then there’s still time?”
Huggins was devastated … again.
“We didn’t block out, which I guess sometimes happens in situations like that,” said Huggins. “They got a very fortunate bounce — it bounced right back to him.”
But there had been nothing but fortunate bounces going against WVU all season.
“Our credo for as long as I’ve coached is get to the ball. It’s hard to win when you can’t get to the ball,” Huggins said. “For whatever reason, this group is the worst we’ve ever had at getting to the ball.”
“That’s the year,” Kilicli said. “The little things make the difference in basketball more than any other sport. The little things make so much difference. Basketball is not like other sports. You’ve got to be close to perfect to win these types of games. We weren’t near it.”
Now it is over and time to move on. Many reasons have been given for what happened this year … the most likely being that in recent years they had run so many quality players through the program in Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Joe Mazzulla, Alex Ruoff, etc., that after a while their exits caught up with the team.
Toss in some lost years in recruiting as players left the program for a variety of reasons, costing almost two full classes, and there was a falloff in talent.
But that wasn’t it alone, any more than the excuse that Huggins forwarded that the team was built for Big East play, which differed from Big 12 play.
A grueling traveling schedule that grew out of playing in a Central Time Zone league with an Eastern Time Zone school only complicated things more.
Mostly, though, it came down to players underachieving … sophomores falling off from their freshman years and transfers like Murray just not being what Huggins thought they would be.
So, it would seem, to be a lost year. Certainly for Huggins it was a year of lost sleep, for no one took his first losing season since his first year as a coach harder than he did.
But in truth there is a ray of hope for the future. To begin with, two freshmen, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, showed flashes of being able to be scorers, which was the most glaring weakness WVU displayed during the season.
Scoring was so difficult that for the first time since 1944 WVU failed to have any player average scoring in double figures, Harris leading the team at 9.9 points a game.
While many are pushing for Murray’s dismissal from the team, there can be no doubt that he showed he can be an impact player and the way he is talking it sounds as if he’s learned his lesson and is ready make a play to make amends.
“I think (the inability to do it consistently was) like the basketball gods (telling me) I didn’t work hard enough to be consistent every day,” he said. “That’s why I have to make sure I work hard in this off-season so I can be consistent every day and help my team win.’’
That gives Huggins three potential scorers and he will return hard-nosed Kevin Noreen as a steadying influence while bringing in a group of forwards — 6-foot-9 Elijah Macon, 6-9 Brandon Watkins, 6-8 Devin Williams and 6-8 Nathan Adrian — who are expected to add athleticism and an ability to deal with Big 12 forwards, something this team sorely lacked.
Almost certainly forwards Aaron Browne and Keaton Miles will be gone by next season, along with seniors Kilicli, Dominique Rutledge and Matt Humphrey, while the fate of Volodymyr Gerun is very much up in the air.
It is at guard where WVU really suffered last year as the three players – transfer Juwan State and sophomores Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne — who handled the point all disappointed.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.