BUFFALO, N.Y. —
For the most part, West Virginia has been a school which ought to give out degrees in athletic disappointment.
Think about it for a minute, for all the wonderful memories the school’s athletic teams have given you, it is countered it with moments of utter exasperation.
• West Virginia went to an NCAA basketball final with the world’s greatest player running the show in Jerry West, yet came out with nothing more than a silver medal.
• West Virginia put itself in position to win a national football championship with the world’s greatest college player running the show, only to suffer a Major disappointment, quarterback Major Harris suffering a shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame that kept WVU from winning.
• Two decades later the Mountaineers found themselves in a similar situation, a four-touchdown favorite at home against Pitt with if not the world’s greatest college football player running the show, one of the greatest, only to suffer such a humiliating defeat that its coach put his tail between his legs and ran away.
How many games over the years have been like that, how many buzzer beaters have they lost, how many opportunities have slipped through their fingers.
But maybe things are changing.
Bob Huggins has come to town and within three years there is that first Big East Tournament championship banner ready to hang in the Coliseum. For the most part, Huggins has put the Mountaineers on the fast track to championships.
There is, however, one major disappointment that eats away at the heart of the basketball program.
A year ago, West Virginia went into the NCAA Tournament carrying high hopes. They certainly knew they weren’t ready to win the title, with as many as three freshmen playing such a big role and their point guard out with a shoulder injury, but they were poised to make a run deep into the tournament as they took the floor in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minnesota against an underdog Dayton team.
Nothing that day went right as the No. 11 seed rode 27 points from Chris Wright along with his 10 rebounds to a 68-60 upset of a WVU team that seemed to be caught in the glare of the national spotlight, putting forth as uninspired performance as a Mountaineer team has produced under Huggins.
The question now presents itself, as the Mountaineer return to the NCAAs as big favorites and a No. 2 seed against an underdog Morgan State team, whether or not the failure from last year will have any effect on this year’s team?
It could serve as an inspiration, of course, a reminder that they must take nothing for granted, that this is March Madness and the madness part is built upon the many inexplicable upsets that come early in the tournament.
It could, too, serve as a 800-pound gorilla on the backs of the WVU players, a burden to performing as loose and as easy as is necessary when you go into a game as a heavy favorite, wanting to first ease your way into the tournament so you peak at the time the toughest opponents stand before you.
Or, it could be, that it will have no effect at all, that the memory has been erased by a long year of much success, the loss fading off into the mist of forgotten yesterdays.
Da’Sean Butler, who has given himself much to replace that sad memory with, has put the memory aside.
“It’s so long ago,” he said. “The only thing you would want to think of it about is so that you won’t let it happen again.”
Butler managed only 12 points in that game and had no heroics down the stretch as he has had during the Mountaineers run this year, hitting six game-winning shots.
Kevin Jones was a freshman in that game last year, did not make a field goal, had only one point in 14 minutes.
“That game is still in the back of my mind. It’s a bad taste,” he said. “I’m using it as a learning experience, what not to do.”
Bob Huggins has been around the game a long time. He’s coached a team to the Final Four but he’s also had his share of NCAA disappointments. He’s thought about what last year has to do with this year admits it is a perplexing thing.
“I don’t know that it matters much,” he said.
But it matters enough that the team has talked about it.
“We had three freshmen,” he said, referring to Devin Ebanks, Truck Bryant — who scored 21 points in that Dayton game — and Jones. “It was their first NCAA Tournament. They’ve played plenty of minutes now. Hopefully, they something from that.”
Hopefully, they learned that it wasn’t the end of the world, only the end of the season, and that they had a long way to go to get better and that now, as Big East champions and No. 2 seeds, they can put an end to the many disappointments that have plagued the Mountaineers over the years.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.