No. 23 Oklahoma's 72-62 win in Norman has all be relegated West Virginia, now 16-14, 8-9 Big 12, to scrambling for postseason scraps. The Mountaineers, odds are, will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season – and third time in the last 10 years – after a brilliant stretch under John Beilien and Bob Huggins. For Huggins, it is likely to be the first time in his last 22 years of coaching where he won't reach the NCAAs two straight years.
And there's a bit of a disappointing element here for Mountaineer fans, though not necessarily with the job Huggins has done. West Virginia is clearly a vastly superior team to what it was during the nonconference portion. Huggins made necessary moves during the offseason, brought in solid talent and honed the pieces he had. And WVU seemed, midway through the Big 12 schedule, to find its groove of exceptional point guard play, solid outside shooting and just enough of a slash and interior threat to challenge even the league's elite. And then Terry Henderson fell ill, and what's left, mainly, are the shells of John Greenleaf Whitter's most famous ideal: It might have been.
If the Mountaineers simply finished off Virginia Tech and either Gonzaga or Purdue, they're still in the big boy conversation. West Virginia led by 17 on the road in Blacksburg and absolutely imploded. They stopped guarding, they stopped running offense. In short, they simply stopped playing – leading not only to lack of a win, but a NCAA committee-deemed "bad loss" to a team dead last in the ACC at 9-20 overall, 2-15 in the league; Tech is rated 230 in the latest RealTimeRPI rankings, making the loss among the worst to any major conference team possible.
WVU also held late leads over Gonzaga and Purdue, the former by 10 at one point in the second half, yet couldn't quite muster enough to emerge the victor. And yet, when West Virginia got rolling, besting Baylor, Kanas State, No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 11 Iowa State in four of five games – the lone loss a highly-competitive defeat at No. 8 Kanas – one truly assumed that this team had found the recipe, that each player grooved into a niche, and the remainder of the season would be a game-in and-out war for the NCAAs until well into Big 12 Tournament play.
The improvements were obvious. Juwan Staten developed a midrange game – perhaps best shown by his 5-of-5 start from the floor and 24 points against OU – and an explosion and quickness unseen last year mixed with a dose of leadership. Eron Harris continued to improve his excellent jumpshooting ability across the board (FG%, 3pt%, FG%) while showing an overall maturation with most in-game decisions. Devin Williams was able to be least a steadying inside player as a freshman, if a bit of a black hole at times in kickouts, while Brandon Watkins developed into a shot challenger. Nathan Adrian's defense has shown strides, and his shooting and overall hustle continue to upgrade. Remi Dibo, in his first season with WVU, has shown spurts.
All of that, with more dedicated team play, helped get West Virginia to where it was before the current skid. But there was really just one domino that felled the rest. Henderson had showcased arguably the second-most significant improvement after Staten. The 6-4, 200-pounder boosted his points per game by four, his shooting percentage a smidge and, despite a lesser three-point shooting conversion rate, had become an irreplaceable scorer in an offense badly lacking players with Henderson's ability to attack off the bounce. Even with his streakiness, the second-year player provided a quality threat from various areas and aspects, and his mere presence at least maintained the thin depth. When he became ill, so, too, did WVU's postseason aspirations.
West Virginia, frankly, was never quite polished enough to challenge even the mid-tier Big 12 foes sans Henderson, who Huggins said has lost 15-18 pounds and considerable strength and shooting ability because of the illness. The sophomore, who averages 12 points and three rebounds, hasn't played since Texas, when the Mountaineers were coming off four wins in five games and threatening even the stingiest of NCAA bubbles. But without Henderson's third option from outside, along with his ability to put pressure on the rim and occasionally slash to the bucket, WVU was without an imperative weapon, and that, essentially, signaled the start of the end.
It was as evident against Oklahoma as it has been all season. With Harris and Dibo combining for three of 16 shooting and lacking a guard to drive and kick or finish, West Virginia again relied mainly on its outside shooting and the drives of Staten. When that began to flounder, along with the defense when Kevin Noreen fouled out with 6:42 left, Oklahoma assumed control over the final minutes. There was no third option for outside scoring, no second option on the dribble drive.
Consider that since Henderson's departure prior to the Feb. 22 Baylor game, the Mountaineers have now lost three of four, beating only bottom-feeder TCU. The losses have taken the team off any NCAA radar, and forced it to likely have to win the Big 12 Tournament if it can't defeat No. 8 Kansas on Saturday – when Henderson, Huggins said, will likely be out again. Even then, the Mountaineers will need to make a similar push to what it did in 2005, when it was on the thinnest of bubbles, to reach the Tournament.
It's a rotten feeling, no question. But that's a positive in some fashion. It shows expectations have grown significantly since that 2005 season. And, barring injury and the unforeseen idea that this group, which has zero seniors and some apparent interior talent awaiting eligibility, won't continue to improve at a solid rate, it's unfathomable, of now, that West Virginia will be in this same position next season. A senior point guard, two juniors with experience, a solid sophomore class and far higher quality depth than this season. It can be a contrite mantra, this "Wait until next year" approach. But, for now, it seems to hold credence. WVU was close this season, but should become what most thought it was: an NIT level team. Next season, those thoughts tick up a notch. So too, it reads here, will the results.