MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — We’re three games away from the regular-season finish line and about 36 hours from a showdown in Waco that should determine the Big 12 coach of the year.
Bob Huggins, perceived as a relic after two subpar seasons that sent transfers scurrying, has West Virginia one game back of first-place Kansas. (Hold the coronation!) Scott Drew, faced with replacing four top performers from Baylor’s Sweet 16 team, sees his Bears sitting at No. 11 in the RPI. (Not exactly the backslide for which some of his peers pined.)
Recall, ladies and gentlemen, that West Virginia and Baylor shared a sixth-place pick in the Big 12 preseason poll. And before faulting the media for yet another set of wrong-minded predictions, remember this poll originated from Big 12 coaches.
Based on October’s expectations, Saturday’s game should carry all the buzz of an NIT play-in, not a top-20 matchup of teams locked-and-loaded for the NCAA tournament. Both schools are securely in the field and positioned to stick around for a while. Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology lists Baylor as a No. 4 seed and the Mountaineers a fifth seed.
If he composed a bracket of coach of the year candidates, Huggins and Drew would be pushing for a No. 1. Until Calipari’s Cats actually lose, he’s at the top, with Mark Few, Tony Bennett and Jay Wright huddled close. But have any of those coaches over-delivered this season to the extent of Drew at Baylor (21-7, 9-6) or Huggs at West Virginia (22-6, 10-5)?
From my perspective, they’re obvious frontrunners for the Big 12 award, with the Kruger-Hoiberg-Self consortium bringing up the next tier. Yes, there’s still room for maneuvering—I’ve always detested the organizers who want your MVP ballot completed with 4 minutes left in a tied game—but it will take serious work over the final week to surpass Drew and Huggins, each of whom dealt with varying forms of roster turnover last spring.
When Eron Harris bolted for Michigan State and fellow sophomore Terry Henderson left for N.C. State last May—removing two double-digit scorers approaching their prime—Huggins was spurred to stage an impromptu news conference. During it he tried, only half-convincingly, to assure fans the program wouldn’t collapse into sink hole. He cited nationwide transfer statistics, referenced his own change-of-campus as a player, bragged on season-ticket sales and called yet again for Coliseum renovations.
None of that explained the heavy attrition of recent seasons or renewed optimism for 2014-15. I don’t believe Huggins suspected he had a team capable of contending for the conference banner. What he certainly knew, however, was that West Virginia wouldn’t be caught replicating the failed formula of recent seasons. It would regain toughness. It would press. And it wouldn’t kill itself with a nonconference lineup of heavyweight opponents.
As it turns out, there have been plenty of heavyweights within the conference—most astonishingly, Baylor. Without Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin, the Bears faced an even more drastic reshaping:
Drew, despite elevating Baylor’s program to unprecedented altitudes, doesn’t command the overt respect other coaches give Huggins—which involves more than trailing by 515 career wins. Drew has rubbed some people wrong with recruiting tactics, and his choir-boy persona became ripe for criticism after the NCAA dinged Baylor for major rules violations in 2012. (That led to Drew being suspended for two conference games in January 2013.)
Putting aside the debate over Drew’s reputation, there’s much to like about his present team, so gritty, resilient and dominated by overachievers:
Top scorer Taurean Waller-Prince was headed to Long Island University before Baylor offered. Transfer forward Royce O’Neale’s best options out of high school were Denver, Mount St. Mary’s, Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas-Little Rock. Blocked-shots leader Johnathan Motley had only three major-college offers. Point guard Kenny Chery by dueling the likes of Evansville, Missouri State and Valpo.
Of the team’s three top-100 recruits, only Rico Gathers, who averages a double-double, is among the top six scorers. (Ish Wainright and former UCLA commit Al Freeman combine for just 6.4 points per game.)
On Wednesday night the Bears rallied from eight points down in the final seven minutes to snap Iowa State’s 21-game home winning streak. That was one more success against the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule, making it impossible to overlook the job being done by Drew, whose squad shredded West Virginia by 18 points in Morgantown on Feb. 7.
The one-game difference in the Big 12 standings boils down to Baylor missing its last-second shot against Kansas at home, while West Virginia’s Juwan Staten made his.
The margin in the coach of the the year voting might be just as close.