MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Donning a USS West Virginia hat handed to him by a military veteran after Saturday’s upset of Kansas, Bob Huggins suddenly looked like a confident commander and not the coach of a sinking ship.
West Virginia, which had dropped four of five games to tumble out of NCAA consideration, closed the regular season with a dose of adrenaline by knocking off the No. 8 Jayhawks 92-86.
While the victory earned Huggins a $25,000 bonus, he joked that taxes could reduce that to only $10,000. More than incentive clauses, however, Huggins was interested in the payoff that could await his team when the conference tournament opens Wednesday in Kansas City.
Currently, West Virginia projects as an NIT team. But by finishing .500 in the nation’s toughest league and matching Baylor for sixth place, the Mountaineers (17-14, 9-9) could catch the selection committee’s focus by winning games against a resume-boosting obstacle course next week.
While West Virginia earned a first-round bye, it’s quarterfinal opponent on Thursday night will be third-seeded Texas, which dominated both regular-season meetings. That game’s survivor likely would play the Oklahoma-Baylor winner in the semifinals.
“We’re going to have opportunities to really help our RPI and get quality wins,” Huggins said. “We’ve just got to go win some games.”
Ignore the grousing about West Virginia’s slow-down tactic contributing to the Kansas comeback. Huggins’ decision around the 12-minute mark to take the air out of a few possessions was crucial after Remi Dibo, Nate Adrian and Juwan Staten encountered foul trouble.
Sure, WVU sacrificed some momentum and aggression by eating clock, but a Kansas charge was inevitable—as was WVU cooling off. After trailing by 25 points, the Jayhawks switched into desperation mode by deploying its halfcourt trap, all in an effort to speed up the pace and create extra possessions.
Huggins countered by essentially shortening the game, while leaving the ball in Staten’s hands. That proved valuable once Kansas really heated up late. By the time the Jayhawks made it a two-possession deficit, less than a minute remained. Had that occurred around the 2-minute mark, who knows how WVU might have coped with the pressure.