By Jeff Goodman
The NCAA tournament without Huggs. It doesn't happen often.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins took his Cincinnati team to the NCAA tournament in each of his final 14 seasons and has taken the Mountaineers to the Big Dance in each of his four years (including a Final Four appearance) with his alma mater. But after losing five of his last six games -- including three straight in Morgantown -- Huggins is in jeopardy of being NIT-bound.
The only time that's happened in the last two decades was his first season at Kansas State in 2006, when he took over a team that wasn't all that talented and wound up going to the NIT.
The talent level has fallen in Morgantown of late. That's one of the reasons why assistant Billy Hahn was demoted and is now off the road.
This team has a stud in Kevin Jones. He's carried this team all year long, averaging 20.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. Deniz Kilicli is a solid piece, but that's about it -- and when Truck Bryant is your No. 2 scoring option, let's face it: You're in trouble. Bryant has had some terrific games, but he's also capable -- and has done so plenty of times -- of shooting West Virginia out of the game.
The Mountaineers were a lock for the NCAA tourney a month ago, but things can change fast. Now they have fallen to 16-10 overall and a game below the .500 mark in Big East play. The losing skid began with a road loss at St. John's, but the key moment may have been the non-goaltending call that would have sent the game to overtime at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. What followed was a loss at home to Pittsburgh, a victory at Providence and two more home setbacks against Notre Dame and Louisville.
The young guards have shown promise, but freshman Jabarie Hinds wasn't ready to be a 30-minute-a-game-guy. Fellow frosh Gary Browne should be playing 10 minutes per contest, not 25.
The Mountaineers are likely on the right side of The Bubble - for now.
But now, after failing to protect its home court, it's time to take to the road and a hungry, resurgent Pittsburgh team awaits -- and then comes Notre Dame in South Bend. That could leave Huggs, one of the nation's top coaches, at 6-9 in Big East play with three winnable games left (Marquette and DePaul at home and at South Florida).
Three games that West Virginia must win for Huggins to do what he have done as well as just about anyone over the years: Reach the Big Dance.