By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
All of a sudden, West Virginia University is playing important basketball games again, and the one they play tonight at the Coliseum, facing Oklahoma, may be the most important game they will play all season.
To begin with, even though there is a month left in the year, a win would give the Mountaineers one more victory than the 13 they were able to piece together a year ago as they came to learn, quite surprisingly, that the Big 12 was more of a challenge than even the Big East had been.
A victory over Oklahoma, ranked No. 21/23, would be their first of the season over a ranked team and begin to draw some national attention to themselves, something that seemed quite farfetched when they started the season with an early upset loss at Virginia Tech and then dropped home games to Gonzaga, Purdue and Oklahoma State.
Losing at home that often was not something WVU had become accustomed to over the years.
All the while Bob Huggins, who has never listed patience on his list of coaching virtues, maintained that his was a talented team capable of doing better than it had been doing, but as the close losses mounted … four points to Gonzaga, three to Purdue and one to Oklahoma State … you wondered if this was not going to be a replay of the previous season.
The one-point loss to Oklahoma State ignited a three-game losing streak that hit bottom with Kansas State devouring the Mountaineers in Manhattan, Kansas, 78-56.
It wasn’t easy to envision anything good happening there, but WVU beat Texas Tech in overtime, lost a second difficult decision to a ranked Oklahoma State team team then saw Juwan Staten, who previously had just been running the show, take it over completely, stunning Baylor with a reverse layup with just three seconds remaining for a two-point road victory then pouring in 35 in a revenge game against K-State.
Suddenly basketball was fun again. WVU had won three of four games in conference play and had put it together at a moment when the Mountaineers were diving head first into the roughest part of the schedule.
Could this really continue with Oklahoma and then Kansas and then Iowa State and then a trip to Texas, where basketball is also going through a major revival?
Anyone who has paid any attention to the Big 12 has observed that there may be super players in the conference like Marcus Smart or Andrew Wiggins, but there are no super teams.
But Kansas is the only team in the Top 10, ranked ninth in both polls, and Texas at No. 15 in the AP poll is the only other Big 12 team to crack the Top 15.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said during Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “We haven’t put a bunch of talk about rankings. We talked from Day 1 about being the best we can be and all that will take care of itself.”
It is pretty much the same way WVU has had to be, only the rest wasn’t taking care of itself until recently.
Barnes’ Longhorns jumped as high as they did with an upset of Kansas, after which the Jayhawks coach Bill Self addressed his team.
“Guys, you weren’t going to run the table. ... Just try not to let one become two,” he said.
You know, in sports, things like that have a way of happening … and that’s what makes this game West Virginia is playing against Oklahoma tonight so important.
The Mountaineers have won at Baylor and then avenged a 22-point defeat to Kansas State at home, giving them three victories in four games.
If Self fears one loss becoming two, Huggins knows that his team can build on the win over Kansas State with a second straight home game and that his players, who had wanted to believe in themselves and worked hard to get to the point where good things could build upon each other, would thrive off another victory against a ranked team.
See, sometimes you just can’t explain what you see in athletics. Looking at it from the press box, it is difficult to believe I sat through Pete Rose going 44 consecutive games hitting safely, especially when I can also recall him going more than 20 at bats on one occasion without a base hit.
Every athlete knows good times and bad times, every team the same, and sometimes there just isn’t a rational explanation for it.
So, if WVU beats Oklahoma the Mountaineers go to Kansas with a real opportunity to win a game that could bring national attention to them and rekindle their chances for post-season play.
It won’t be easy and shouldn’t be expected … but have you thought what happens with this West Virginia team if Eron Harris gets hot with Staten?
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.