Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 27, 2013

Basketball a struggle for regional schools

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — It’s been a tough season to be a fan of West Virginia athletics. The same goes for Virginia Tech and Marshall.

All three schools have had forgettable seasons in the ‘big two’ sports, football and basketball.

West Virginia started 5-0 on the gridiron, rose to fourth in the national polls and then learned that most everyone else in the Big 12 has offense too, and that defense must be played. The Mountaineers finished 7-6, and was subjected to playing in the snow of New York and lost to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl in a stadium long known for baseball.

Virginia Tech fans didn’t have it much better. The Hokies were looking for a ninth straight 10-win season, but barely kept their run of 20 straight seasons with postseason appearances alive. Virginia Tech had to win their final two games to reach .500, and won the Russell Athletic Bowl in overtime against Rutgers to finish 7-6.

Now the Hokies won’t even get to enjoy a Thursday night home game for the first time since 2001, something Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver calls a gift — or a “night off” — for Virginia Tech fans.

Marshall was much the same. The Thundering Herd found a quarterback in Rakeem Cato, but the defense was worst than West Virginia’s, which was quite an accomplishment. Marshall could have finished 6-6 instead of 5-7, scoring 59 points against East Carolina in the season finale, but they allowed 65 in a double-overtime loss.

It was that kind of season on the gridiron, and it wasn’t much better for Virginia. The Cavaliers were expected to compete in the ACC, but lost six straight after a 2-0 start and wound up 4-8.

 Whew!!! Not a good season for football fans.

 No wonder the fan bases of all four schools had to be hoping for something better. Yet, the basketball teams haven’t been much better.

 True, Virginia is 19-8 and tied for third in the ACC, but the Cavaliers are far from an NCAA Tournament lock. The selection committee will notice that Virginia has a road win at Wisconsin, but they are also 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Conference. Old Dominion is 4-24, has already fired its coach, but the Monarchs do have a win over the Cavs.

As for the other three schools, none will be NCAA bound, and it is doubtful any of them will be bound for the NIT or any of those other postseason events.

 West Virginia is 13-14, and will see its run of five straight NCAA bids come to an end. Virginia Tech (12-15) is 5-15 since a 7-0 start, and the Thundering Herd —  which was picked by many publications to end their 26-year NCAA drought this season — is 12-16 and ninth in 12-team Conference USA.

What has happened?

The answers are many for all three teams.

West Virginia simply hasn’t been able to make the adjustment to the Big 12 without Kevin Jones and Darryl “Truck” Bryant, who combined to score 36.8 points a game last season. The addition of three transfers to the experience-shy holdovers that remained simply haven’t blended together, and it has driven Bob Huggins to the point of his head exploding.

 Just kidding, but have you seen the man on the sidelines? Of course, he’s been like that his entire career, but that style has led to more than 700 wins, and an NCAA Final Four appearance with the Mountaineers in 2009.

He has been publicly critical of his team, which seems like an odd way to motivate, but it has worked for him in the past. It just hasn’t happened this year with a team that simply doesn’t play hard at times, which will drive any coach to rage.

His prize recruit was actually a transfer, Aaric Murray, from LaSalle, who was supposedly on the radar of NBA teams. After seeing him play, they must mean the minor league ABA.

Huggins won’t let this kind of season happen again. He will get busy in the offseason, find some players who will play hard and with heart, from the opening whistle until the final buzzer.

That is what West Virginia basketball teams do, and that is what they will do in the future. Huggins will make sure of it.

As for Virginia Tech, the Hokies made the surprising move to fire Seth Greenberg and bring back James Johnson, who had left as one of Greenberg’s assistants for the same position at Clemson.

Unlike Greenberg who was seemingly possessed by defense and apparently paid little attention to putting the ball in the goal, Johnson came in with a style of his own. Virginia Tech started fast and ran fast, winning seven straight while averaging 86.1 points a game.

The biggest issue was outside of Erick Green, who continues to lead the nation in scoring, is the Hokies just don’t have the personnel to play at that pace against the better competition. They have walk-ons seeing way too much time so adding more talent will be Johnson’s job ahead.

That has been proven true, with the Hokies going 3-13 since a 9-2 start, including a nine-game losing streak that finally ended last Sunday against Florida State. Another one was likely to start on Wednesday with Virginia Tech traveling to face Miami.

At least the Hokies won’t have to worry about being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, which seemed to happen every season under Greenberg.

Then there is Marshall, which is 0-5 in five appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and hadn’t been there since 1987. This was supposed to be the Herd’s year, but after a 7-5 start, Marshall went to Kentucky, returned with a loss and have won just five games since.

Marshall did lose point guard DeAndre Kane for a few games, but they haven’t gotten any better since he returned. The best news for the Herd could be all the defections in Conference USA, which could leave Marshall as one of the more established programs in the league.

As scary as that might seem to C-USA fans, that could be Marshall’s best chance to end the streak and get into the NCAAs.

Of course, the best part of college basketball begins next week, with the postseason tournaments. Get hot at the right time and your school could make a run all the way to the NCAAs.

If it doesn’t happen, just mark it down as a tough season and look forward to next year. That is really all you can do.

After all, football starts soon. Everyone is a winner in spring football.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at