The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

February 27, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: NIT this season might be blessing for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — Normally, with as crucial a game as was Wednesday night’s Iowa State matchup with West Virginia University in Ames, one would write an obituary for the Mountaineers after an 83-66 defeat, for their NCAA tournament hopes became smaller than the rim looked to Gary Browne during the game.

Surely, while a victory in it would hardly have solidified WVU’s place in the NCAA Tournament, the loss almost certainly guaranteed a one-way ticket to the NIT, and it is hard to argue against anything but that.

Many are disappointed over the direction the Mountaineer program has taken, although one suspects that the pain and the suffering the fans are going through is probably misdirected if aimed only at this edition Bob Huggins has put on the floor.

It is part of a rather larger malaise that has fallen over the athletic department with the football team going 7-6 and 4-8 over the past two years and with Huggins’ team slipping below .500 at 13-19 last year.

As this season moves into its final stages, while it appears WVU can edge past .500 overall and return to post-season play it missed last year, maybe even being a favorite to win the NIT, there has been a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with what has transpired.

And that is wrong.

Huggins certainly will not admit to it, considering he has twice tasted the Final Four in his career, but this has actually been one of his better coaching jobs for he made the most of what he had and did what he could to cover up what he didn’t have.

Think back to the closing moments of the last season and the feeling that was in your stomach, a feeling Huggins must have had, too, for he cleared out all those he felt either held the team back last season or would keep it from advancing this year.

There was some talent in the group, the likes of Aaric Murray, Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles, but Huggins knew what he wanted, knew what he had and thought he knew what he was going to get … which, in the end, was what left him vulnerable.

If the team that he created this season got off to a slow start and lost some non-conference games it shouldn’t have lost, leaving it vulnerable to be in the position it finds itself today, he turned it into a team that was fun to watch for a stretch and that was always aiming toward better times a year from now.

Under Huggins, Juwan Staten turned into a superstar. and it is safe to say that no one saw that coming off his first season playing as a Mountaineer. It happened because Huggins, rather

than working on his skills, instead simply taught him how to develop them himself through long, hard work in the gym and hours of studying film of himself and his opponents.

Watching Staten perform his magic, making shots he couldn’t have made a year ago and making passes no one could make while never turning the ball over, has been eye popping.

And, as Staten became a superstar, Eron Harris became a shooting star.

Harris had led the Mountaineers in scoring last season but had done so without averaging double figures for the season, a feat you will not see accomplished very often in today’s game … if you can even call it an accomplishment.

But today he is the second-leading scorer in the Big 12, probably the most exciting 3-point shooter in the league despite failing to make any against Iowa State and the most-accomplished free-throw shooter.

What they have done is given WVU an engine to run next season’s team, leaving everyone hungry to see them balanced by some of the inside help Huggins had planned upon fielding this year.

But his two prized newcomers – Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon – ran into academic screens that turned them into practice players, so much so that it’s highly possible that WVU was the only team fighting for NCAA qualification being outrebounded regularly in practice.

Freshman Devin Williams had trouble transferring from being a man among boys in high school into a boy among men in college. He played well enough times to let anyone know that with seasoning he is going to be a force, but that it was going to take time and help from a few other inside players to allow him to blossom.

Those players will be around a year from now in Holton and Macon and whatever recruits Huggins brings in, although he may not need much more in the way of help for no one leaves the team he now fields.

It isn’t unreasonable, seeing the improvement in Staten and Harris, to think that Terry Henderson and Gary Browne may also make a large strides forward, even though Henderson was unavailable with illness against Iowa State and Browne’s 1-of-9 shooting was sickening in and of itself.

Thinking this way, thinking more toward next year than toward this, makes you even wonder if a trip to the NIT rather than NCAA might not be a blessing, much as it was in 2006-07, preparing that team for an run three games into the NCAAs the next year with victories over Arizona and Duke before losing a devastating overtime game to Xavier.

Two years later they made their run to the Final Four.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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