MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Sitting courtside before his team’s Friday practice, Bob Huggins was asked if West Virginia’s chances of earning an NCAA at-large bid were over.
“I wouldn’t say ‘over’ but we need to win, there isn’t any doubt,” Huggins said. “We’ve kind of been in this situation before — it just hasn’t been maybe as dire as this one is.”
With an RPI of 91, WVU (12-12, 5-6) is coming off an 80-60 loss at Baylor and desperately needs a win Saturday against Texas Tech (9-13, 2-9) to restore its equilibrium. Today’s tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the WVU Coliseum, where the Mountaineers are 2-3 in Big 12 play. Here’s the five-key primer:
1. The last meeting …
A mere two weeks have elapsed since WVU ripped the Red Raiders 77-61 in Lubbock, just a few miles from the Buddy Holly Museum (which probably attracted a larger crowd that day than did United Spirit Arena). The Mountaineers never trailed that afternoon, bolting out to a 16-4 lead that Huggins said “really could have been 30-2 if we don’t throw the ball away.”
Ah, the 18 turnovers — those were the only blight for WVU, which benefitted from Texas Tech committing 22. The Red Raiders were especially error-prone during a late-game stretch in which they turned it over four straight times after pulling to within 59-55.
Eron Harris poured in 18 points and WVU made 10-of-18 from 3-point range thanks to the long-range shooting of Gary Browne (3-for-3) and Terry Henderson (3-of-4). The Mountaineers shot a season-high 55 percent overall — not a surprise considering Tech ranks 300th nationally in field-goal percentage defense.
2. Since the last meeting …
Texas Tech is mired in a five-game slide overall and, since the WVU encounter, has lost at home to Kansas State (68-59), then at Texas (73-57) before Wednesday’s home flameout against Oklahoma State (91-67).
Point guard Josh Gray categorized the OSU blowout as “very crushing” after Tech fell behind 55-34 at the half. “After our student body and university came out and showed their support, they didn’t deserve a performance like that,” Gray said.
3. Should Tech keep Chris Walker?
At least one local sportswriter thinks so. Nick Kosmider, who covers the Red Raiders for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, wrote in a Valentine’s Day column that Tech should drop Walker’s interim tag and sign him to a permanent deal because Walker has the AAU connections to upgrade recruiting and the pedigree — he previously coached at Villanova and New Mexico — to develop signees.
Walker earned some kudos with a home upset of Iowa State on Jan. 23, though five subsequent defeats by an average margin of 22 points diminished some of the goodwill. The coach’s future could hinge upon Texas Tech being more competitive during the final seven regular-season games and it’s sure-to-be-brief stay at the Big 12 tournament.
And even if that occurs, Walker’s fate could depend on whether athletic director Kirby Hocutt can lure a more qualified outsider to Lubbock.
4. Murray becoming foul magnet
At TCU, Aaric Murray picked up two fouls in his first 27 seconds of action. Four nights later at Baylor, Murray was whistled for two fouls in his first 2:55, and upon re-entering before the half, Murray picked up No. 3 within a minute.
Murray finished with seven points and six rebounds at TCU in 13 minutes (including some crucial plays in the second half). But he managed just four points, three boards and three turnovers in 12 minutes at Baylor, and was visibly perturbed by the calls. On two occasions, an official warned Murray to contain his reactions.
Huggins, asked about Murray’s proclivity for foul trouble, prefaced his comment with “let me see how I can answer this without getting into trouble,” and then answered, “I think (Baylor) was a very tightly officiated game.”
As for Murray becoming frustrated with the whistles?
“When you go in and you get two fouls as quickly as he got two fouls, I think that has a tendency to back off your aggression,” Huggins said. “And the third one that he got rebounding the ball was, uh … questionable.”
5. Tough closing stretch
Saturday figures to be the final regular-season game in which WVU is favored. After facing Texas Tech, the Mountaineers close with rematches against Kansas (No. 6 RPI), Oklahoma (No. 20), K-State (No. 22), Oklahoma State (No. 27), Baylor (No. 46) and Iowa State (No. 54).
“We’ve got an opportunity now, with playing teams with a lot higher RPIs, to increase our RPI,” Huggins said. “Our strength of schedule is going to be fine, but we’ve just got to get our RPI up to where it’s in the ballpark” of the NCAA at-large bubble.
“The good thing about playing in a good league is you have more opportunities, so we do have opportunities.”