MORGANTOWN — We’ve all heard about Knute Rockne’s “Win One for the Gipper” speech and legend has it that way back in the day Percy Haughton of Harvard once choked a bulldog in front of his team to fire them up before playing the rival Yale bulldogs.
But mostly, in regular season games, coaches like to try to keep from putting too much emphasis on any one game, for if they make it do or die and they don’t win, well, then what’s left for the rest of the year?
Bob Huggins is caught in that very situation as his team travels to Waco, Texas, to take on Baylor at 4 p.m. in what has become as crucial a game as they will play this year.
To begin with, they are facing the nation’s No. 1 team in Baylor, a team that brings a 22-game winning streak onto its home court while WVU tries to shake the effects of second half collapse at home against No. 3 Kansas to leave the Mountaineers with consecutive losses for the first time this season.
What’s more, a loss and WVU falls to 6-6 in conference play that could shake the very foundation upon which such a young team was built back in the most promising days of the season.
So how does Huggins approach it after the KU loss?
“Hopefully it tees them off,” Huggins said.
Surely, he’s not going to choke a bear in the locker room before the game, so how does he emphasize the importance of the game without really risking turning the season into a failure should they lose?
“I don’t think you need to do anything special in this one,” Huggins said. “They understand where they are. They have it on the court and in the film room where everyone’s NET is, where we and our opponents are ranked there. They did that themselves from the beginning.”
The NET is the new NCAA way of seeding its post-season championships and WVU, now No. 10, could jump way up by winning at Baylor but a three-game losing streak – even if they lost to No. 1 and No.3 in the nation – can’t help.
So the approach is the same.
“You try your best to get ready for what they do,” Huggins said. “You look at how we scored against them in the past, what worked and what didn’t. We go back and look at how other people scored against them and how they tried to slow them down from scoring.
“There’s a lot of things coming off of film study.”
What the film study shows is that this is technically a strong team both on offense and defense but what it doesn’t show is the heart it has displayed.
Baylor went into the season with Tristan Clark a preseason All-Big 12 player in the post, but he was coming off knee surgery from last January and hasn’t responded as well as they would have liked, not starting and averaging only 4.7 points a game.
What’s more, versatile Mario Kegler decided to skip his final season of eligibility and pursue a professional career after he was suspended from the team last September.
“Mario was going to be a big piece to our team this year. He had three 20 (point)-plus games in the Big 12, fourth-year college guy. It definitely hurts,” coach Scott Drew said at the time. “Just like when Tristan went down last year, you got to adjust. Next man up mentality. At least it’s before the season so we have more time to adapt with that.”
And Baylor obviously did adjust. Huggins was asked what that said about the team’s character.
“I’m not on the inside,” Huggins said. “On the outside sometimes, less is more. I think that’s happened to all of us sometimes in our careers where you lose a couple of guys and think ‘My goodness!’ and then other guys step up with that will to prove they are what they think they are.
“You see that happen, people lost star players and all of a sudden the whole becomes better.”
That has happened and 6-5 junior forward Mark Vital has emerged as the team leader.
“He gets the hard rebounds,” Huggins said. “He sets the tone. He penetrates. He gets every loose ball, every single loose ball. That doesn’t happen very often. He’s so unselfish and his unselfishness spreads throughout the team.
“I don’t know this as a fact but I would guess that when he talks they listen to him.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel