Pitt game means more than just bragging rights this season

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — It is rare air the West Virginia men’s basketball team finds itself in these days.

For all of the wrong reasons.

The calendar says we are still 18 days away from Christmas and generally that is way too early to start talking about the state of any college hoops team, yet you really have to wonder in which direction the Mountaineers are heading these days.

Following its 66-56 loss to Florida in the Jimmy V Classic — a game that was as ugly as a Miley Cyrus bad hair day — the Mountaineers are 5-3 heading into Saturday’s showdown with rival Pittsburgh.

This is not supposed to be a must-win situation for West Virginia, not when the conference opener is still 26 days away.

But, to put this as plainly as possible: If the Mountaineers want to have any kind of realistic shot at making the NCAA tournament, they MUST beat the Panthers.

We can get into hypothetical situations and say, “Well, just wait for this team to get hot in Big 12 play and the rest of this will be forgotten.”

Or we could talk about miracle runs in the Big 12 tournament.

Or we could build this conversation based on reality and use the information we have at the moment and what we have at the moment is a pile of you know what.

If Pitt were to win Saturday, that would be four losses before conference play. The last time that happened for the Mountaineers was the 2013-14 season that ended with a first-round loss to Georgetown in the NIT.

Lose to Pitt and the Mountaineers’ best non-conference win would be its victory over St. Joseph’s in the third-place game of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

“Yeah, but they still have Rhode Island coming up and there is also Tennessee.”

Um, actually St. Joseph’s was ranked ahead of Rhode Island in the NET rankings used by the NCAA selection committee on Thursday, and the Tennessee game isn’t until late January.

Lose to Pitt and then, say, West Virginia goes 9-9 or even 10-8 in Big 12 play, that would likely put the Mountaineers squarely on the bubble for NCAA play and that’s assuming the Mountaineers go .500 in conference play, which that can’t be taken for granted at the moment.

To be clear, beating Pitt is not really anything the selection committee would consider a marquee win. Beating the Panthers doesn’t guarantee the Mountaineers an at-large spot, but losing to Pitt likely comes pretty close to guaranteeing a long, cold winter in Morgantown.

So, how did we get here? That’s really the question everyone wants answered.

Honestly, at the very root of the answer is that there really is no wrong answer.

You could blame injuries, team chemistry, roster adversity, the guards, the forwards, the coaches and you wouldn’t be off base either way.

You could talk about the full-court press not working. You could talk about a lack of shooters or a lack of ball-handlers, and again, you wouldn’t be off base.

What I will say is this: For those of you who thought Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. got too much of the credit last season, well, hopefully you understand why now.

There is a more important question to be asked: How do you fix it?

Ultimately that will be left up to Bob Huggins, who has fixed many seasons that once appeared to be going awry over his 37 years in the business.

And while it may seem easy right now to compare this season to that 2014 NIT year or even, gulp, the 13-19 season that preceded it, looks can be deceiving.

This program, in its current state, doesn’t have the same feel as that disastrous 2012-13 season.

Right now, this program needs time more than anything else.

Time for players to heal. Time for some players who haven’t played a lot in the past to develop and mature.

It’s just we live in a day and age right now where fan bases usually don’t allow that kind of time anymore before growing impatient. Seems like there’s too much money at stake these days to listen to that reasoning.

And so, we come to Saturday’s game against the Panthers with so much more on the line than simple bragging rights.

Right or wrong, Saturday’s result could mean the season for the Mountaineers.

TWITTER @bigjax3211. Email jjackson@dominionpost.com

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