Following difficult losses to Georgetown, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, West Virginia stands in ninth place in the Big East conference. That's not the critical item we're referring to, although WVU is certainly in a fight for its NCAA, and perhaps even Big East, tournament life. The key moment, the crossroads, at which West Virginia stands now, is the way in which this team will react to the straightforward comments of head coach Bob Huggins.
Mountaineer Nation has been abuzz with commentary and opinions on Huggins' statements over the past week or so. (And the buzz would be greater if the Rich Rodriguez affair weren't lingering like a roadkill skunk on I-79.) Some of the discussion is understandable, because Huggins doesn't give politically correct answers, and doesn't spout the platitudes and canned responses that many coaches set forth. There's not much doubt where you stand with Huggins. He speaks his mind, and that's such a departure from the norm these days that it's bound to draw comment.
Before we go any further, it should be understood that Huggins is quite savvy in his dealings with the media. He will use that outlet to get a point across, or reinforce one that he has made to his team in private. Certainly, he doesn't share all of his innermost thoughts (or opinions on officials) with the ink-stained and electron-saturated members of the media, nor should he be expected to. But it is refreshing to get honest opinions and thoughts from a coach, even when those aren't always of a positive nature.
There have been some concerns expressed that Huggins, with his blunt assessments, might "lose" his team. And to be honest, there are some signs that a player or two might not be adapting well to his style of coaching. If that is the case, there will be trouble over the remainder of the season, because this team has to play together, with united effort and singleness of purpose, if it is going to win games in the Big East.
The point of this isn't to lay blame. Huggins has to be true to himself -- to coach the way that has brought him great success -- otherwise he's not likely to achieve those same results at WVU. And it's not the players' fault either. Adjusting to a different style (although John Beilein was known to be much more harsh in practice than in games, or before the public) is a tough task as well. But as long as comments concerning toughness, listening skills and other fundamentals are staples of post-game press conferences, it's clear that this team isn't all traveling the same path -- or even moving in the same direction.
There isn't much time to correct these issues, however. The Big East season is winding down, and unless WVU wants to be facing Pitt or Connecticut in the first round of the league tournament, it needs to find players that will do what Huggins wants.
Concurrent with this issue is a question of playing time. Huggins has noted that backups Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman are competing with the sort of energy that he wants. Is it time to elevate that pair to the starting lineup? Or is having them come off the bench a more valuable boost to the team's energy and competitive level?
Were Mazzulla to start, he would likely displace Alex Ruoff, who has been having a tough time finding room for shots of late, not to mention battling the effects of flu and illness for the past 2-3 weeks. Thoroughman would likely bump Jamie Smalligan, but could also see more time if the up and down path of Joe Alexander doesn't trend upward, or at least level out to a more consistent path.
The problem with these moves, however, is that they would decrease West Virginia's scoring ability at a time when scoring is its major problem. Ruoff is a threat anytime he gets an open look, and even if a team covers him well, he can still pull a defender away from the middle of the floor, which should allow more room for his teammates to operate. Alexander is obviously the one player that can drive and create his own shot, so removing that option could further hinder WVU's chances to score.
Decisions like this are ones which earn coaches their money, and there's no easy answer. It's also impossible to foresee the results of any such move, either on the court or in the heads of the players involved. However, there's not much doubt that West Virginia is at the key moment in its season -- and the results of Huggins' challenges and playing time decisions will likely determine its tournament fates.