By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was hard, really hard, for Bob Huggins to let go of the dream he’d been chasing, the dream of returning to the NCAA Tournament this year.
See, March Madness seemed to be his birthright. Year after year from Cincinnati to West Virginia University he had been there, 20 times in 27 years as a head coach. He’d made it to a pair of Final Fours and four Elite Eights.
Then last year this winning coach had a losing record and went nowhere.
He vowed to fix that, thought he had through recruiting only to have to the two gems in his class fail to pass eligibility.
Blame that on the kids?
Blame that on him?
You have your opinion, the fact of the matter is that without them he found himself coaching just an average team and finding a way to lift it beyond where its talent should have taken it. It lacked experience, lacked an inside game yet it beat three ranked teams, including the Big 12 champion Kansas Jayhawks.
It put itself in position to make an NCAA argument, offering a pair of star players in Juwan Staten and Eron Harris, those big victories, a 9-9 record and sixth-place finish in America’s toughest conference.
Then came the one game it had to win, its opening game in the Big 12 Tournament, a game in which the Mountaineers could have made a statement.
Instead, they spit the bit.
Texas walloped them.
For the third time this year the Longhorns walloped them.
Bad matchup or bad team?
If it was just a bad matchup, you shrug your shoulders and move on.
If it was a bad team, and the Mountaineers have lost five of their last seven going down the stretch when they were trying to impress the NCAA committee, maybe the problem is deeper than you think.
Four straight years now they have lost their first game in the conference tournament, stretching all the way back to that Final Four season, which is becoming a distant memory.
That’s the way things stood when Huggins was asked in the aftermath of defeat whether he felt his team still belonged in the NCAAs.
It was hard for him to say what now is obvious to everyone, that they do not belong there this season.
“Well, we were sixth in the best league in the country. You know, we struggled early and we lost some games early because we were so young,” he said, making a good point.
But those losses do not carry asterisks … *Too young for the losses to count against them.
“I think we’ve gotten better and better. I think, are we one of the, you know, whatever, 60-however-the-hell many there are now? I don’t even know. Yeah, I think we are. But I guess it’s your body of work.”
The body of work matters. The early losses, the late losses.
Huggins had a point to make, though.
He thought back to his days at Cincinnati, to a year when it appeared he might win the national championship, to a season when he had a dominant inside player who would have a long and successful NBA career in Kenyon Martin.
They were ready to go into their conference tournament as the nation’s top team when Martin broke a leg.
“I can remember when Kenyon broke his leg and the head of the committee came out and said it’s the total body of work, we don’t take any of that into consideration, whatever they did throughout the course of the year. We were clearly the number one team in the country RPI, the number one in the polls, number one in everything else,” Huggins said.
“And we got the last 2 seed.”
So much for the body of work. As Huggins saw it, the committee put a lot more emphasis on Martin’s broken leg and how the team was at the moment than on the body of work.
“So I’ve learned that you sit there on Sunday and try and figure it out. How do I know what goes on?” he said.
All he knows, going back to the point, is that his team improved during the season, that the young players gained experience and, in his eyes, are among the “60-however-the-hell-many” teams that get into the NCAA.
“Sure we are, right now we are. I mean, take today aside, yeah, we are,” he said. “But I don’t know. I don’t know what everybody looks at and what’s really important.”
What do they look at?
How can they not look at five losses in his last seven games, being knocked out by 17 points in a game that really wasn’t that close the first time it stepped on the floor in its conference tournament, the other four losses being by 17, 13, 15 and 10, and they look at even its near season-saving victory over Kansas coming against a team without one of its best and most dominating inside players.
That’s just not what the NCAA is looking for.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.