Two West Virginia University athletic teams followed closely by this writer were in action over Thanksgiving weekend and I have some thoughts to share on the Mountaineers football and basketball teams. No earth shattering news, just opinions and ideas.
First, the football team ended its five game losing streak and became bowl eligible with a 31-24 win over Iowa State last Friday. The Mountaineers will close out the regular season at home this Saturday in a 2:30 p.m. contest with the Kansas Jayhawks. It will be senior day, so it will be the last time to see two of the most prolific offensive players to ever wear the gold and blue of WVU play on Mountaineer Field. Quarterback Geno Smith and wide receiver/running back Tavon Austin will be making their final appearances at home. I have heard only speculation on the status of junior Stedman Bailey, but one would think there is a real chance he will enter the NFL draft next spring, so it may be his final home game as well.
The Mountaineers are 20-point favorites over the 1-10 Jayhawks. At 1-10, Kansas has obviously struggled under first year head coach Charlie Weis, but they did take Texas and Oklahoma State down to the wire. Not saying this is a dangerous game, but WVU’s defensive woes and Weis’ offensive background could potentially create a perfect storm thatMountaineer fans don’t want to see.
Christmas in San Diego anyone? While far from official, one WVU beat writer mentioned that the Holiday Bowl was very interested in the winner of the WVU-Iowa State game. That game is on December 27 and matches the fifth team from the Big 12 against the third team from the Pac 12. Leading contenders from the Pac 12 are USC, UCLA and Oregon State. Another possible team for the Holiday could be Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona Wildcats. That would rock some boats in the San Diego Harbor!
While a matchup against West Virginia’s version of Benedict Arnold would fire up fans in these here hills, it likely wouldn’t do much for ticket sales in Southern California. The Holiday Bowl relies heavily on inviting a California school to boost ticket sales. If forced to take Arizona the Holiday could opt for a Big 12 school closer to San Diego. West Virginia’s travelling fan base would be extremely challenged to make it across the country two days after Christmas.
Many more WVU fans could attend the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City on December 29 where the seventh pick from the Big 12 plays the Big East’s fourth selection, but the question is, would Mountaineer fans bother to make the effort? Anyway, early indications are if WVU isn’t in San Diego, they will likely play in New York.
Now, on to a little West Virginia basketball. When the Mountaineers lost 84-50 to Gonzaga on November 12, I was disappointed that WVU wasn’t more competitive, but I was still very bullish on coach Bob Huggins’ team, at least as much as one can be after a 34 point beat down. I rationalized that the team had flown across country to play a legitimate Top 20 team, at midnight and with three new starters. I was particularly keen on the idea that Huggins and his team would have 10 days to work on problems and get better. I expected to see a marked improvement when the team hit the floor for last week’s Old Spice Classic near Orlando.
To that end the Mountaineers looked impressive in an 87-44 drubbing of Marist in the opening game of the tournament. There was good shooting from freshmen Eron Harris and Terry Henderson to be excited about. The defense was stifling at times. Of course one had to figure the quality of the opponent was suspect and there would be more to learn after the Mountaineers played Davidson on Friday. Davidson is a quality veteran team from the Southern Conference. After a good start WVU went on a severe drought on offense and needed a furious late game rally to come up on the short end of a 63-60 score.
That loss set up a third place matchup with Big 12 foe Oklahoma. Much the same happened against the Sooners. Early lead, offensive drought, comeback falls short and WVU loses 77-70.
I’ll try to sum this quickly, because of space considerations. I am no longer bullish on this team, at least to the point I was. I still think they can make it to the NCAA tournament, but they may not. There is plenty of talent, but it is a mish mash of stuff that is going to take time to figure out, and that timeline could be longer than anyone wants to admit. Huggins has 12 guys that have played meaningful minutes. All are capable in some areas, but that number looks too high to get this team blended.
Three point shooting has been horrendous except for Henderson in the Marist game. If some consistent three-point shooting doesn’t emerge, trouble looms in a big way. Fouls have plagued big men Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray. In the case of Kilicli that is not news, he’s been in foul trouble since he was a freshman and he leads the team with 14 turnovers.
The next player down the turnover list is point guard Juwan Staten with nine. Now, it’s understandable that a point guard would have more turnovers than most of his teammates, but the kicker with Staten is that he has just six assists. That defies everything that has been said for a year about the transfer from Dayton who was billed as our first true point guard since Darris Nichols.
There are more deficiencies, too many to get into now, but the point to remember is that the season is still early and there is talent on the team for Huggins to work with. The thing is, it looks like he may have to make some hard personnel decisions that may require a change in some of his philosophy. To me, for the record, a non Hall of Fame coach, that may mean letting the freshmen play through some mistakes to gain confidence. The freshmen may be the key to the offense that is missing.