Bob Huggins is used to playing for conference championships, national rankings and NCAA Tournament seeding. But with four regular season games remaining and his team sitting at 13-14 overall and 6-8 in Big 12 play, none of that is still on the table for the West Virginia University basketball coach.
So as his team prepares for tonight’s 8 p.m. battle against Baylor (16-11, 7-7 Big 12) at the WVU Coliseum, what's the motivation?
It starts with revenge.
WVU was feeling pretty good about itself when it traveled to Waco, Texas, on Feb. 13 to meet up with the Bears. It had won three straight games, was back to .500 in league play and was talking about the possibility of a late-season run.
But 18 Mountaineer turnovers, six Brady Heslip 3-pointers and 22 points off the bench from Rico Gathers changed all of that as Baylor turned a 31-27 halftime advantage into a second-half runaway, embarrassing the visiting Mountaineers with a 80-60 thumping.
Huggins said avoiding that same fate tonight comes down to one simple key.
“(We can’t) throw them the ball,” he said with little hesitation. “Sometimes I think our guys are colorblind. We have a tendency to throw it to the wrong team, at times.
“Our turnovers have been at the worst times and in the worst ways. You can't have live ball turnovers. Live ball turnovers result in baskets for the other team. We haven’t gotten enough live ball turnovers, and we've given up way too many.”
It also comes down to making shots. Baylor was 50 percent from the floor in that first meeting, including a 9-for-22 mark from 3-point range, while WVU made just 43 percent of its attempts.
The Mountaineers are worse than that as a whole, shooting just 41.5 percent in conference play, and last time out against Oklahoma State they connected on just 16 of 53 attempts from the field (30.2 percent).
“I think when you're making shots, everything is good,” said Huggins. “When you don’t make shots, you struggle.This league is so close in a lot of ways, talent wise, the team that makes open shots is the team that's going to win.
“We’re certainly not as bad in practice as what we have been in games,” he continued of his team's shooting woes. “We shoot the ball a lot, and our guys come in and shoot the ball on their own.”
Besides revenge, the obvious goal for WVU at this point is to finish at or above .500.
In 30 years of coaching prior to this season — his sixth with the Mountaineers — Huggins has only experienced a sub-.500 season twice. He was 14-16 at Walsh in his first season in 1980-81 and 12-14 at Akron his first year there in 1984-85.
To stay above .500 this year, the Mountaineers will have to win three of their next four, a though task considering their six conference wins to this point have come against the league’s three bottom teams. With a trip to No. 6 Kansas looming on Saturday, beating Baylor is a must.
The Bears are certainly beatable. After starting 15-5, Baylor has lost six of its last eight games, including three in a row. Its last win was the one against the Mountaineers.
With senior guard Pierre Jackson averaging 19.2 points and 6.4 assists per game and 7-foot-1 freshman center Isaiah Austin averaging 13.4 points and nine boards, the Bears — who are 2-0 all-time against the Mountaineers but will be making their first visit to Morgantown — have the weapons. But head coach Scott Drew knows going up against a desperate team like WVU is never easy.
“It's definitely one of the tougher places to play,” he said of Morgantown and the WVU Coliseum. “Coach Huggins is one of the best coaches all-time, and anytime you play a Big 12 road game you know how tough those games are to win.”
WVU freshman guard Eron Harris scored 19 points against Baylor in the first meeting, while senior forward Deniz Kilicli scored 13. Jabarie Hinds, scored eight points, was the only other player to top five points. Kevin Noreen, Gary Browne, Matt Humphrey and Aaron Brown combined for 33 minutes of action without a single point.
To get a different result this time around, WVU will likely have to find more balance.
The game will be streamed online at ESPN3 and carried by some Big 12 Network affiliates.
Cam Huffman is sports editor of The Register-Herald.