By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They are the new kids on the block, but they couldn’t come from more different neighborhoods as they move into the Big 12 for this year’s basketball season.
West Virginia University comes from the Big East, a bully of basketball conference in which it has been a big-time player ever since John Beilein hit town and through the Bob Huggins era, during which the Mountaineers made a run to the Final Four.
TCU, on the other hand, comes from the Mountain West Conference, and it does so not with a Huggins at the helm but with Trent Johnson, in his first year as head coach of the Horned Frogs, a team that had fallen on difficult basketball times.
A year ago TCU went 18-15 and now moves into a power conference with Johnson replacing Jim Christian. Johnson came from LSU, where he was 67-64 in four seasons after having twice reached the Sweet 16 at Nevada and Stanford.
Huggins, as always, is looking forward to this move. He is familiar with the Big 12 from his lone year at Kansas State before WVU hijacked him to run his alma mater’s team, and he believes the move will rejuvenate a program that maybe had reached the point where it needed a shot of adrenalin.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement,” Huggins said during the Big 12’s summer media call. “We were in the Big East for 16 years. Any time there is something new it’s refreshing and exciting.”
He noted that with an 18-game conference schedule you play a true round-robin, home-and-home with each member of the league.
“It gives you a true conference champion,” he noted.
It also keeps Rick Pitino from whining about coming to Morgantown for four straight years and Syracuse from benefitting from hosting WVU for four straight years, too.
Huggins does not believe you’ve seen all the scrambling of the conferences and realignment or expansion or whatever it is you want to call it yet.
Indeed, he isn’t even sure that you will see the NCAA Tournament – perhaps the greatest sporting event in America – stay in its same format.
“It looks like there will be a four-team playoff in football. It could be that we will have a change in our sport’s playoff, too,” Huggins said.
And he, armed with depth at guard for the first time and with an exciting inside player in Aric Murray, a LaSalle transfer, coming in believes his team can be in the mix.
The Big 12’s other newcomer, however, has got some work to do.
How does this school that has been a national power in football and baseball find a way to create a similar situation in basketball?
“Look at basketball, there’s excitement but there’s some curiosity, a wait-and-see attitude of can we compete, can we get it done at this level … and that’s good,” said Johnson, speaking of the TCU fans.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach at a high level. There are some tough conferences, and I know what it’s like. I know what we’re getting into, but it’s been good, and I think people are just sitting back waiting.”
Now, he says, the wait is over.
“It’s time,” he said. “It’s time to take on the challenge of the Big 12.”
There are some who say he has no chance, that he has to go through a rebuilding period, but that is not the way he has to look at it.
“We’re trying to be as good as we can. We’re trying to win now,” he said. “I don’t like to use the word rebuild. We’ll have a chance, hopefully, if we stay healthy, to compete. The main thing is trying to get better every day and not worrying what happened in the past, whether it was yesterday or last year because nothing is promised; nothing is guaranteed.”
While West Virginia has really shown itself to be a big-time player in both football and basketball, TCU has got to find a way to improve.
“The bottom line starts off real simple,” Johnson said. “We haven’t done a good job of carrying our weight around here. We have to step up to the plate. This is a great group of guys. The key for us is when things get tough — whenever that is, it may be today, it may be tomorrow, who knows — but when it gets tough we have to step up to the plate.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.