The Times West Virginian

February 13, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Huggins, WVU need to finish strong to make NCAA tourney

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It was that great philosopher Leroy “Satchel” Paige who once proclaimed, “Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.”

That might be the best advice anyone could give West Virginia University’s basketball team.

Indeed, if the Mountaineers look back, they will see themselves wasting away a huge lead against a bad Virginia Tech team and losing or see a game against Gonzaga slipping through their grasp or a 3-point disappointment against Purdue.

Win one of them, win all three of them, and they are making plans for an NCAA party, rather than spending the final month of the 2013-14 regular season on the bubble, probably needing to win three of their final six games to get in.

Oh, they have been magnificently brave and heroic in growing into what seemed once to be a wasted season, to have allowed Juwan Staten to magnify himself into superstar status while Eron Harris improved with each passing – no, make that shooting – game.

If it weren’t for those early losses … Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Missouri, Purdue and Virginia Tech, each a winnable game.

“I bet,” said coach Bob Huggins the other day after his WVU team upset Iowa State, a second victory over a ranked team in the last three games “we could take a poll here and most people would say we wouldn’t lose those now.”

Translate that to mean “most people on the NCAA selection committee.”

“We were young,” Huggins continued. “I tried to tell you guys that. We were young and made dumb mistakes. We didn’t do some fundamentals things you need to do. We still make mistakes, but we’re a lot closer.”

Standing at 15-10 and 7-5 in the Big 12, WVU understands its work is hardly done. No, it’s closer to just beginning for the next task is Saturday at Texas, a team that has emerged as second best in the Big 12 behind Kansas with a 10-2 Big 12 record.

Winning it well may put WVU into the NCAA Tournament barring total disaster down the stretch, but then again had the Mountaineers beat Kansas when they went there last week, “Joey Brackets,” as Huggins likes to call Joe Lunardi, who has made a livelihood out of “bracketology,” said they would have made the tournament.

The road is something that roads around Morgantown are now in the midst of these winter storms, filled with potholes.

A week after going to Texas they play at home against Baylor, then go to meet a very mad Iowa State team on Feb. 26, play a home game against hapless but not hopeless TCU on March 1, head to Oklahoma for another tough one on March 5 then come home to finish the season in the worst possible way if they absolutely must have a victory, hosting Kansas on March 8.

One thing is certain; Huggins’ players can’t say they don’t know exactly what they are up against.

“I don’t lie to them,” he said. “There are people who say, ‘Well, aren’t you putting pressure on them?’ But if I was them, I’d want to know what you’ve got to do, what our RPI is, what the RPI of the people we’re playing is.

“I’d want to know what we need to do to get our RPI in a range where we’re talked about as an NCAA team.”

What West Virginia has to do is continue to find ways to win, both to build recognition and help them in future outings against the highly ranked teams they will be facing.

“Every time we win it helps our confidence,’’ point guard Staten said. “We really don’t pay any attention to the number beside the teams we’re playing.’’

They do that and people’s thinking has to come around.

“It’s hard to kind of figure out what people are thinking about us, but our mindset is go out and play as hard as we can and guard the ball better,” Juwan Staten said. “We know we can score with any team. We know we can shoot the ball. We know we are going to shoot a lot of 3s. That’s just the way we play on offense.

“We are just picking it up on defense and doing some of the little things we haven’t done this year. We just beat two out of three ranked teams. We’re playing pretty good. We’ve got the fans behind us again.”

What’s more, as WVU climbs the ladder, other teams in the Big 12 are slipping.

Oklahoma State, for example, has fallen on hard times and Marcus Smart has two games of his suspension left. Baylor, once a Top 10 team, is unranked. Oklahoma had lost two straight entering Wednesday night’s game. Even Kansas just lost in overtime to Kansas State

A strong late run now will surely get WVU into the tournament.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.