The Mountaineers' loss to the Hokies is disappointing enough. West Virginia has the talent to defeat a team like Tech, which certainly isn't anything special this year. Granted, the game was on the road, and that's the first time newcomers like Nathan Adrian, Remi Dibo and Devin Williams faced a hostile environment. Still, given the 1:00 p.m. start time, Cassell Coliseum wasn't overflowing or particularly loud. A number of WVU fans dotted the reported 5,000 (more like 3,000) in attendance, and when their team got off to a 17-point first half lead, it looked as if the rebuilt Mountaineers were in good shape.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill for West Virginia from that point on, and it dropped a game that was eminently winnable. That happens to most teams throughout a season, but for those that are probably going to be on the bubble for postseason selection (thinking NIT here), such losses are painful. As head coach Bob Huggins said afterward, his team has "dug itself a hole", and now must win a game or two that most observers don't expect it to win.
It might be a bit of overkill to pronounce the Tech game as a critical one on the Mountaineer schedule, but it was, and in more ways than one. Getting an early road win would have been a boost to West Virginia's confidence, and would also have helped prevent the precipitous RPI hit the Mountaineers took from the loss. More importantly, in terms of postseason play, it's a ding in the loss column that could be the difference in qualifying for tournaments not called the NCAA.
This doesn't mean the season is over, or that West Virginia is doomed to a repeat of last year. Even though it made a ton of mistakes in the final 25 minutes of the game, they weren't errors caused by poor attitude or lack of care. It was easy to see, at least from my vantage point, that the Mountaineers were trying. They simply wilted under the strain of 24 missed lay-ups and a lack of execution and experience. And while this squad is brimming with a deep pool of talent, it has enough to pick off an upset here or there. It was going to have to do that anyway if it had designs on making the postseason, but now it has made the job that much harder.
The pressure, such as it is early in the season, is now on for WVU. It it can't afford to stumble in its next four games, and after that things get much more difficult, with a likely date against Wisconsin and match-ups against Missouri, Gonzaga and Purdue looming before conference play gets underway. Somewhere along the line, or against the top of the Big 12, the Mountaineers are going to have to get a win back to balance this loss, and that's not going to be easy. It might not have been a "must-win" but it was the next thing to it.