KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Looking beyond the terrific barbecue and horrendous Major League Baseball, this town is lesser known for its motto “Per aspera ad astra,” which translates to “Through hardships to the stars.”
That Latin snippet also could apply to Texas Tech and West Virginia, teams who have experienced plenty of hardships this season — one that likely will end unless the stars align for a four-day miracle run at the Sprint Center.
“This is a new season. Everything in the past doesn’t matter anymore,” said freshman guard Eron Harris, who averages a team-high 9.9 points for West Virginia (13-18, 6-12). After five consecutive NCAA tournament bids, the Mountaineers can only earn a sixth by winning the Big 12 tournament. That begins with Wednesday night’s first-round game against Texas Tech (10-19, 3-15), which would precede a quarterfinal matchup Thursday against top-seeded Kansas.
“It’s all up to us, what we want to do,” Harris said. “We just have to do it collectively as a team. We have the pieces to the puzzle, and if we go out and play hard and physical — like Huggins wants us to do — it’s possible.”
Of course this team hasn’t done what Bob Huggins wanted it to do very often. Hence, the coach’s repeated complaints about players lining up incorrectly on offense and failing to guard with enough intensity on defense. That has led WVU to this week’s one-and-done situation, where the conference tourney is a last chance at salvaging something respectable. Huggins said he doesn’t have a sense of whether his squad, losers of six straight games, can suddenly ascend to a level of consistency that would allow them to cut down the nets in Kansas City.
“We’ve very rarely been in a situation where we needed a second chance,” Huggins said. “We’ve pretty much gone into conference tournaments knowing we’re going to be in the NCAA tournament.”
HARRIS ON DISPLAY
Harris, a lightly heralded recruit who has quickly developed into the Mountaineers’ top scorer, suggested following Tuesday’s workout that he didn’t foresee becoming such a crucial contributor so fast.
“This is big for me, because I never thought that me, individually, would get to this point and play in the Big 12 tournament,” he said. “But I’m here and I’m a pretty big part of the team.”
Harris might have made the Big 12 All-Freshman team, if one existed. Instead, the league prefers an All-Rookie team, which allowed for the inclusion of all transfers and newcomers, such as Iowa State senior Will Clyburn and Oklahoma junior Amath M’Baye.
Upon WVU’s half-hour inside the 18,72-seat Sprint Center, Harris sized up the shooting environment.
“It’s a pretty big background, so the depth-of-field is kind of different,” he said. “But I don’t consider myself a shooter, I’m a scorer, so I’ll find a way to score.”
While Texas Tech fell 77-61 to WVU in Lubbock on Feb. 2, the Red Raiders nearly pulled a stunner in Morgantown, rallying from 10 points down to lose 66-64 when Josh Gray missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“They fight,” Harris said. “Especially from that second game you see that they do have some fight in them, and we can’t take them for granted. We’re both on the same page and we have to win this tournament to do anything.”
Said Huggins of the Mountaineers narrow escape at home: “They made a huge comeback and we were lucky to hang on.”
Tech is led by junior 6-foot-7 forward Jaye Crockett (11.9), the only player on either team scoring in double figures. Crockett, who has come off the bench in all but four games this season, has averaged 15.5 points against WVU on 11-of-20 shooting and 7.5 rebounds.
West Virginia carried sizable contingents to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament, but this year’s losing record and moving to the Big 12 venue halfway across the country could curb the following.
Huggins said he had no idea how many WVU fans might attend this week: “It got to the point we had huge crowds in New York, but that’s so much closer. Our people generally follow pretty good, but being middle of the week, I don’t know.”