West Virginia, 4-4 and sitting at 113 in the RPI according to RealTimeRPI.com, played arguably its worst game of the season in a 60-56 upset loss at Duquesne on Tuesday. That, combined with an inability to get a split out of contests with Davidson and Oklahoma, has put the Mountaineers in a worse NCAA Tournament position than most media pundits, fans, and even the WVU coaching staff expected. And, lest one believe that it's too early to begin looking at resumes and overall bodies of work, know that Huggins is doing just that.
"Obviously, we thought we were going to be better at this time than what we've been," Huggins said. "People thought (WVU versus Michigan) would be a marquee national game, and we haven't held up our end of the bargain. They are all important to us now. We are sitting here with four losses in eight games. Every game becomes important, becomes crucial for us if we want to play in the NCAA Tournament."
The main crux of the contest, which tips inside Brooklyn's Barclay Center at 8 p.m. on Saturday, was supposed to be Michigan head coach John Beilein facing his former school in West Virginia. And that will remain the primary national, and likely local, topic. But for Huggins and the Mountaineer players, this game, and the final three consecutive nonconference games that follow it, become huge in the postseason push. WVU, a solid underdog to the No. 3 Wolverines (10-0), would have its worst start in six seasons under Huggins and its worst overall since 1998-99 if it loses. Huggins has never lost five of his first nine games to start a year at the Division I level.
"I don't think it has ever been me against John," said Huggins, whose initial Akron team did lose eight of its first 13 games. "I'm not sure it was ever scheduled to be fun. I think it was a game that was kinda sexy, John being here and having great success here and John playing his former team makes for great TV. But for us, now, it's a great deal more than that."
West Virginia follows the ESPN-televised Dec. 15 Michigan game with home games against Oakland, Radford, Eastern Kentucky and Oklahoma over a 21-day stretch. That four-games-in-three-weeks period should allow the coaching staff to make some adjustments, allowing the Mountaineers to execute a bit better, especially in transition and finishing off offensive rebounds. But, right now, the focus is first on final exams, then on a Michigan team Huggins said Wednesday he had not yet seen on film.
"I really haven't seen them," Huggins said of the Wolverines. "I caught five minutes of a game one time. I saw them a little bit last year. But that's about it. I've seen John's teams play for a long time. I think everybody is impressed with the job John does. He does a great job letting guys do what they are really good at doing. (But) we've got one outside factor we really need to focus on and that's final exams. It's a tough time of year. We are involved in that now. That's been our priority all week. That'll be the number one priority this week, then we will find time when somebody doesn't have an exam to start going over the Michigan game plan."
Huggins did note that Michigan has "great spacing offensively. I have great respect for (Beilien) and what he does. He has won everywhere he has ever been. I think when you start in places like where John started, you gotta be a good coach to continue to win at every level and every step. He gets the most out of his guys. There's no doubt about that. They play to their fullest potential."