MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — He glimpsed his future, did Aaric Murray, asserting somewhat surprisingly that he might not prefer to spend next season in the Italian A League (boxing out in Bologna) or the NBA D-League (in Sioux Falls eating bologna). But rather, that he’d cherish playing a second season at West Virginia University, chasing all the aspirations that aren’t materializing in this one.
The news of Murray wanting to stay in school could not have enthused Mountaineer Nation before the Kansas game. And given his bouts of lethargy and misalignment, he seemed to be one of those players Bob Huggins might target in an attrition mission this offseason.
Yet after a Big Monday showdown against an even bigger Jeff Withey, in which WVU nearly dug itself out of a very big hole, Murray won himself some believers.
His 17 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 29 minutes essentially stalemated Withey’s 15 points, seven boards, four blocks and one steal in 31 minutes. And that essentially marked a matchup win for West Virginia, considering the level of national regard Withey commands and the amount of local denigration Murray frequently warrants.
For one night at least, Murray validated himself.
“I definitely wanted to outplay him,” Murray said. “Everybody’s saying how good he is, and he’s the best center going into the draft. If I want to show anybody what I’m capable of, I’ve got to do it against him.”
What Murray is capable of, however, isn’t necessarily what Murray delivers. And through the first 19 games of his WVU playing career (18 if we omit the Michigan no-show), his unreliable nature had won out more often than not.
Even Monday’s performance, one that might come to represent Murray’s breakthrough, featured a rocky beginning. The 6-foot-11 junior entered the game at the 16:49 mark and promptly was yanked back out by Huggins at 15:42. As the coach seethed, Murray plopped down in a seat brandishing a half-pout.
“He was miserable to start the game,” said Huggins. “I mean, let’s be honest, he was terrible. He was terrible defensively, he was terrible offensively. So I got him out and he’s kinda sitting there, and I said, ‘If you don’t want to play, just tell me.’”
Perhaps Huggins expected Murray to turn the game around upon re-entering; but given the blooper-reel of inconceivable gaffes perpetuated by the Mountaineers this season, Huggins also might have expected Murray to lay down at center court and make snow angels.
“To his credit, he came back and played with some enthusiasm and I think, for him, played pretty hard,” Huggins said — that for him bit a telling indicator the coach still hasn’t witnessed maximum effort out of the transfer. “I think earlier in the year he wouldn’t have responded that way.”
The Jayhawks endured some glitches themselves, intermittently threatening to blow the game open one moment and to squander it away the next. But in the periods where KU looked vulnerable, Murray was a primary cause. Take his first-half re-entry for example, with Kansas cruising 29-14 and the WVU Coliseum crowd beginning to question why it paid $20 for parking.
“I want to win a national championship and play in those big games like today. I don’t want to leave like this. I’m not leaving like this.” — Aaric Murray
That’s when Murray sank a midrange jumper. Two possessions later, he intercepted a pass near midcourt and dribbled to the opposite end for a dunk. Next came a fast-break layup off a feed from Gary Browne, before, finally, Murray swished a 3-pointer to victimize the Kansas sagging defense. With nine points in a span of 2:44, Murray re-awakened the arena and re-energized his team. Though No. 2-ranked KU eventually held on for a 61-56 victory, Murray suspected the Jayhawks left with a better appreciation for WVU’s toughness.
“They were out there (in warmups) just taking half-court shots and playing around, like this isn’t a game they need to take seriously,” Murray said. “We just felt like they were taking us for granted.”
As Big Monday rolled into Reflective Tuesday, the coach said this of Murray’s status for next season: “I don’t know. Now is not the time of year that we have those kind of conversations. It has yet to be determined.”
Murray’s comments, however, sounded very determined: “I want to win a national championship and play in those big games like today. I don’t want to leave like this. I’m not leaving like this.”
If Murray can bottle the intensity he showed against Kansas, WVU and Huggins might want him to stay after all.