Just an hour or so after receiving an official pat on the back from the NCAA, West Virginia left no doubt that label is applicable to the Mountaineers in yet another dismal performance on the road.
The tournament selection committee showed a sneak peak of the brackets on Saturday afternoon, releasing the Top 16 seeds in this year’s field had the season ended this week. Fortunately for West Virginia, it doesn’t — because their postseason would be ending in short order.
The Mountaineers were tabbed a No. 2 seed in the West Region in that exercise, and promptly performed like a team capable of being on the wrong end of the next Iowa State-Hampton 15-over-2 highlight reel that gets replayed each March.
Bob Huggins needs no reminder of such possibilities. His best team since West Virginia’s 2010 Final Four run met a similar fate as a 3-seed in 2016, and it is that WVU team which Huggins invoked after Saturday’s 69-59 loss at Oklahoma.
“The team that we had that had the best chance to win a national championship got beat in the first round by Stephen F. Austin,” Huggins said on his postgame radio show. “They were talented, now. Talented. But you know what? I told them you’re gonna get your [butt] beat. You’ve got a bad attitude, man. And you know what? They did. And it wasn’t close.”
Huggins got the same queasy feeling when he watched the Mountaineers coast down the stretch of their 76-61 win over Iowa State earlier in the week.
“‘We won the other day and everyone said ‘why are you so down?'” Huggins said. “I saw it coming. Before, when I talked, I had every eye on me. Now I don’t. When Larry [Harrison] talked, all eyes on him. Now they’re not. That’s attitude.
“It’s not hard to see. But it’s impossible to fix. I can’t fix someone else’s attitude. I’ve got to deal with mine… they’ve got to deal with theirs. I just know that the guys we have depended on all year are not the same dudes. They are not the same people.”
Huggins paints a troubling picture of his locker room, and given that more than 30 minutes elapsed before he spoke to the media after the game, he certainly saw enough to create that portrait.
Even as their continuing road woes demonstrate that the Mountaineers are overrated, the circumstances of those losses provide some glimmer of hope that the sky is not actually falling.
West Virginia has never won at Kansas, so that game belongs in a separate box.
In the three road losses since, the Mountaineers have run into buzzsaws.
Kansas State, which matches up well with WVU and plays with a strong sense of pride, was hungry for its first Big 12 win and got it.
Texas Tech was coming off the heels of a tough loss to Kentucky, and needed a win to solidify its NCAA tournament standing.
Oklahoma, which hadn’t beaten a single team in the Top 30, had far more at stake on Saturday than the Mountaineers. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Sooners as his last team in the field to begin the day. Now they finally picked up the high-quality win that gives them some breathing room.
If West Virginia had gotten drilled on the road against an Iowa State team that’s playing like it is already making plans for spring break — and probably not together — then there’s reason for major concern.
Instead, we may simply be watching the youngest team in the Big 12 being dealt some very harsh lessons about hunger from teams who wanted it more than the Mountaineers did.
We’ll know the answer this week.
The toughest stretch of schedule before the Big 12 tournament begins now, with West Virginia hosting No. 3 Kansas on Wednesday before visiting No. 1 Baylor on Saturday.
If the Mountaineers are pretenders, that will be made perfectly clear by the time the sun rises next Sunday. West Virginia will be the underdog in both games, and should be playing with the hunger displayed by their past three road opponents.
If they do, Huggins still believes in this team’s upside.
“We’re good enough to beat anybody in the country if we have the right frame of mind,” he said.
If they don’t?
The Mountaineers may run into a new group of Lumberjacks capable of chopping them down for a premature March exit.