The Times West Virginian

Sports

January 21, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN-Growing pains hurt WVU

MORGANTOWN — There is little more that can or needs to be said about the state of West Virginia University’s athletics at this point, for we are all too close to it to be able to evaluate what is transpiring without allowing emotion to enter into the equation.

Indeed, that WVU’s hand was forced to make the jump from the Big East to the Big 12 is a point upon which we all can agree, just as we can agree that considering the limited options available, the Big 12 was far better than a school in West Virginia’s position could have hoped for.

Certainly, the early returns have hardly been what anyone could have imagined, for the three major sports — football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — have certainly been greeted rather rudely and, for the most part, the other sports have fared no better.

In truth, many expected the biggest adjustments that would have to be made were to an extended travel itinerary that saw teams leaving earlier, going farther and returning later, part of which would offer some inconvenience to the local fandom both in following the teams in person or via television.

That, as it turned out, was really a small part of the adjustments that were necessary, for the move to the Big 12 has thrust the need for a general overhaul of the athletic department’s operation.

Indeed, one year into the Big 12 and West Virginia’s football program has completely overhauled its defensive coaching staff after the conference showed the Mountaineers to have constructed the worst defense in the school’s history, one so bad that it rendered perhaps the most potent offense in recent memory nearly impotent.

In the shadow of that came a basketball season in which the veteran coach Bob Huggins had high hopes for a young team but one that he truly believed held great promise athletically, especially in a conference that figured to be a step down from the Big East Conference the Mountaineers had fled.

In truth, the feeling always had been in the Big East one of superiority when it came to the sport of men’s basketball, the thinking being that its elite teams could match any in the country and its middle teams were probably as good as top teams in many conferences.

But this proved to be a complete fallacy as far as WVU was concerned, for the team Huggins brought out of the Big East was a complete flop, unable to shoot the ball at all, unable or unwilling to pass it as it should, neither tough on the boards nor strong on defense.

It left Huggins mystified and demoralized to the point that he felt part of the reason was that it was not built for Big 12 play, forcing him to promise to change the team’s approach, something that may not come full cycle this season.

And the WVU women’s basketball team, scarred badly when its best big player Asa Bussie went down with a season-ending injury before the season could begin, learned this weekend just how far it is off when it went to Waco, Texas, and faced the

nation’s top team, Baylor, of the Big 12, and the nation’s top player, Brittney Griner, who came one blocked shot shy of a triple-double in a 19-point victory.

Add to this an introduction to Big 12 wrestling with the Mountaineers facing No. 2 ranked Oklahoma State and losing 36-3 while the men’s and women’s swimming teams lost to TCU in their Big 12 debuts. Prior to this, of course, the volleyball team suffered through a winless season in the conference.

That left the women’s soccer team as the crown jewel of the athletic department, coach Nikki Izzo-Brown’s ladies having put together an unbeaten regular season in the Big 12 to take that title.

What will happen in baseball remains to be seen, that season just beginning to take form, but the changes that it has brought to the athletic scene here are obvious with the push for a new stadium that will benefit the community, this year’s team paying a price for it though as it must play most of its home games traveling around the state.

The point well may be that the first decade of the 2000s ranked among the golden ages of sports at WVU, with the John Beilein basketball era followed by Huggins’ Final Four run, with Greg Jones dominating as an NCAA champion wrestler, with the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and the Orange Bowl victories in football led by the likes of Pat White, Steve Slaton, Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and with the rise of the women’s soccer program into a national force.

That era, though, would seem to be coming to a close as a transition period begins where the WVU athletic department has to recreate itself in the image of a Big 12 conference that asks it to compete not with Pitt and Syracuse and Louisville or Georgetown but with Oklahoma and Texas and Oklahoma State and the likes.

It is a different world, and while West Virginia may have believed coming in that it could impose its will upon its new conference, it is going to require an adjustment period that could offer some growing pains before the Mountaineers are settled in.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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