The Times West Virginian

March 16, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU dies an ugly death

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

PITTSBURGH — Obituaries are never fun to write, especially when the subject committed suicide, and especially this obituary about the death of a basketball team and the death of a basketball season.

RIP, West Virginia University Mountaineers. You left us too soon, losing disgracefully in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, 77-54.

We will miss you. We’ll miss Kevin Jones’ class and Truck Bryant’s smile and those sleepy eyes of his.

They say you died out there on the floor of the Consol Energy Center, but that’s not necessarily true. It is where the body was discovered, lifeless and still, riga mortis having already having set in.

But it was a slow death, one that started many months ago.

The symptoms showed themselves first when Northern Kentucky came into their home. They coughed up a game then, lost to a team whose nickname no one knew and that was located in a town not one of the players on the team could name.

They said then it was just a case of “freshmanitis,” nothing to worry about, that it would go away in time.

Who knew it was fatal?

This was a team that was supposed to improve, but no matter what cure Dr. Robert Huggins tried with them, more and more symptoms began to show.

They couldn’t shoot. They couldn’t pass. They had a brief recovery in mid-season, but down the stretch it was obvious that they were weakening. They slept when they should have been awake; they lost to teams they should have beaten.

Oh, they fought hard. But they couldn’t find a way to finish anyone off. Somehow, some way they managed to miss winning so much as 20 games, which really isn’t what it once was when teams would play only 26.

Bob Huggins always wins 20 games. He is the Bob Gibson of basketball coaches … but he couldn’t win 20 this year with this group.

In fact, the 14 losses are the most he’s lost as a coach since the 1990-91 season, his first at Cincinnati, when he also lost 14. The most he’d ever lost was his first year of coaching at Walsh ,when he went 14-16.

Bob Huggins survived a heart attack that would have killed many a coach. He will survive this, too, but he isn’t sure how.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said when asked how long this loss would linger. “Never gotten beat like that. We just were never in the game. Shouldn’t say ‘never.’ Maybe a couple times. But not very well. I don’t know. Have to figure it out.”

In the end, the cause of death was put as starvation.

They couldn’t get enough points to survive.

You earn points by making baskets and that was the one skill this team didn’t possess.

It was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. At a school that has won 16 national rifle championships, this group couldn’t hit the side of the Empire State Building with a bazooka.

As a team they shot 32.7 percent for the game.

But that doesn’t tell the real story, for they shot only 23.1 percent during the first half when they fell behind by 18 points.

Think of that figure for a moment, 23.1 percent, because that matches their record low for a game, coming when they made 12 of 52 against Maryland in 1951.

This was a team that at one point in the season was shooting the ball pretty well, a team that had consecutive games of shooting 56.8 percent and 50 percent against Rutgers and Connecticut. That melted like the ice in a glass holding scotch on the rocks. The last six games of the year they shot 31.5 percent, 39 percent, 50.8, then followed that with 28.8, 34.7 and the 32.7 in this final game.

It is one thing not be able to make spinning jump shots or deep 3s under pressure, but when the team you are playing is throwing 3s as they are falling out of bounds to beat the 35-second clock and hitting insane layups when they are falling down in the closing minutes of the game, you have no chance.

And that’s what Gonzaga did.

That comes when the defense isn’t stopping anything, and that’s what was transpiring down on the floor.

“This is the worst defensive team I’ve ever had in 30 years,” Huggins would say in the interview room. “We don’t get the help; we don’t get the loose balls. We don’t do the things we’ve done for years and years and years.

“They shoot 56 percent; that’s never happened. You’ve been around. That’s never, ever happened. No matter how well somebody played, it never happened. A lot of it is because we’re so inept offensively. They get breakouts. We throw the ball around, throw the ball to them. That adds to it.”

And so they died an ugly death, did it on national television, with the world and the Big 12 watching, licking their chops awaiting the Mountaineers arrival next year.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.