MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Between the uncontested dunks and the unexplained dismissals, West Virginia’s week of basketball has been weak even by this season’s woebegone standards.
A team that started No. 13 in the AP preseason poll now flounders at No. 10 in the Big 12 standings, a precipitous freefall that has fans checking out. Boos became unmistakable during the most recent 22-point loss, when WVU folded up in the second half and made an average Texas team look like Phi Slamma Jamma.
As if a 2-9 league record didn’t tell us enough about the void of chemistry and leadership, news that surfaced 48 hours later, in which Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris were booted off the team, confirmed the rock-bottom status. As the season grows longer and longer, the roster gets shorter and shorter.
Athletics director Shane Lyons wouldn’t elaborate on what ended the WVU careers of Harris and Ahmad, but as for Bob Huggins’ career, Lyons presumes his head coach has plenty of victories left. When a few grousing fans submit this season as evidence that the 65-year-old Huggins ain’t what he used to be — Kids are different today! You can’t coach ‘em that hard! — it rings familiar to the grousing of 2013, the last time West Virginia produced a losing record.
If you’ll recall, during the midst of that 13-19 season, previous AD Oliver Luck actually awarded Huggins a contract extension. Lyons sounds equally fortified in believing Huggins will steer West Virginia out of this disarray.
“He’s obviously very capable of fixing the team — he’s done it before,” Lyons told me this week.
Sensible fans realize Huggins is an icon who has earned the right to oversee a rebuild and, eventually, script his own exit. To the small batch of irrational fans overly incensed by the recent string of losses, Lyons couldn’t be more clear:
“The guy’s a hall-of-fame coach, and I’m very fortunate to be sitting in this chair, unlike some ADs who don’t have that caliber of a coach. Huggins is a proven leader and one of the greatest to ever coach in college basketball.”
No vote of confidence required in this situation, just a reminder to those with memories too short to stretch back to the previous two Sweet 16s. Lyons rewound to the 2017 NCAA game against top-seeded Gonzaga, when the Mountaineers came within a possession of knocking off the eventual national runner-up. (“Another couple shots and it’s completely different — we’re in the Elite Eight or maybe the Final Four.”) Last year, West Virginia gave crown-bearer Villanova as tough a game as anybody.
Not that four consecutive NCAA bids has Lyons glossing over the current calamity. He was seated a few feet from Huggins in Lubbock when the Mountaineers lost by 31. He has joined the coach on sour flights home after other blowouts. In moments like this, Lyons isn’t evaluating the program as much as being a “part of the support system.” Sometimes a sounding board, sometimes there for encouragement, Lyons is always careful not to overreach.
“Huggs doesn’t take losing very well,” Lyons said. “I know our fans are disappointed — all of us are — but no one is more disappointed than Bob Huggins.
“We’ve had those conversations, and he’s disappointed for all of Mountaineer Nation. But he’s trying to fix it.”
Losing is a rarity for Huggins. At 10-14 overall, West Virginia appears destined for its second losing season in his 12-year tenure, which would mark the coach’s fourth across 37 seasons.
Lyons views the struggle primarily as a product of Sagaba Konate missing the past 16 games with a knee injury and Beetle Bolden’s bumper-to-bumper litany of damaged parts. The recent transgressions of two upperclassmen merely shoveled more dirt on a season that’s already a full-blown fail (and we haven’t even experienced the officiating at Allen Fieldhouse yet).
“The whole thing hasn’t worked out as planned,” Lyons said. “But my job is understanding there’s ebbs and flows to wins and losses, especially in basketball where a couple players can have a huge impact.”
Huggins and his staff didn’t make the right reads on this year’s roster. But when it comes to trust, 855 wins stockpiles a bunch of it.