By Brian McCracken
The last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotion for West Virginia’s fan base.
Loyal fans all over the country watched the men’s basketball team cruise through the first weekend in Buffalo before falling to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. And they also saw the women’s team make it to the round of 32 before losing a road game at Maryland.
Despite the fact that both seasons are over, each should be considered a success by fans, coaches and players alike. While I know a lot of you are still reeling from the heart wrenching 61-58 loss to the Zags, take a moment to look at the bigger picture in this week’s hot and cold column.
Men’s Basketball – Yes, West Virginia saw its season end in a devastating three-point loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, but in no way, shape or form does that mean the season was a disappointment. Zoom out for a second and take a look at the finished product. After losing Jonathan Holton (who was tailor made for the top off West Virginia’s press), Devin Williams (one of the better post players and rebounders to ever don the Blue & Gold) and Jaysean Paige (the Mountaineers’ best scorer and potentially the best sixth man in the country), no one was sure of what to expect out of the 2016-17 squad.
Despite that attrition, almost every player underwent drastic growth and improvement in the offseason. As a result the Mountaineers won 28 games (the third most in school history), beat the No. 1 and No. 2 AP teams in the country and ended up being one of the last 16 (out of 347) Division I teams playing meaningful basketball in March. In my opinion this year’s edition of the West Virginia men’s basketball team was the best in the “Press” Virginia era, and you can make a strong argument that the group is second only to the 2009-10 Final Four squad in Bob Huggins’ tenure.
It seems like just yesterday that West Virginia experienced a 13-19 season followed by a 17-16 one, which resulted in a round loss in the NIT. Three years later, Huggins has in fact fixed it, and West Virginia’s program is once again nationally relevant and a staple in the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers should hold their heads high, because the state of the basketball program is strong, and with four of five starters returning in 2018, there are surely more good times ahead.
Baseball – After concluding the early portion of its non-conference slate with a somewhat underwhelming 8-7 record, Randy Mazey’s Mountaineer ball club has won back-to-back series and improved its record to 12-9.
In the first Big 12 action of the season, West Virginia went on the road and took two out of three against Baylor, who was ranked No. 1 in the RPI entering the series. After the impressive outing against the Bears, West Virginia opened its home slate with a pair of wins against Jacksonville before dropping the finale on Saturday evening.
In the first win, the Mountaineers rallied from behind and capped off a four-run ninth inning with a Jackson Cramer walk-off home run to deep right field. That blast, combined with the series win at Waco, could single-handedly change the trajectory of West Virginia’s season, as it prepares to try to earn its first NCAA berth since winning the Big East tournament in 1996.
WVU now stands at No. 12 in the RPI. It looks as if it has finally started to find its groove and is looking more and more like the 2016 team that made a run at the Big 12 championship. However, in order to do so it must continue to get solid at-bats from leaders such as Cramer and Darius Hill, and pitchers B.J. Myers and Michael Grove must continue to keep opposition at bay with strong starts.
Big 12 Basketball – For much of the regular season, the Big 12 took pride in being the best men’s basketball conference in the country.
Huggins, who knows a thing or two about college basketball, often touted the league as one with no bottom, meaning every team was talented enough to win on any given night. After an impressive regular season, the league put six teams in the NCAA Tournament, but only one made it to the Elite eight.
While many (at lest outside of the Mountain State) probably picked West Virginia to fall to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and had Oklahoma State and Iowa State exiting in the first two rounds, it’s hard to wrap your head around Baylor losing to a No. 7 seeded South Carolina by 20 points in the Sweet 16 or No. 1 seeded Kansas being dominated by Oregon in what was essentially a home game (the Jayhawks had to make a brutal 34-mile trek to Kansas City to play in the regional final).
The Bears and Jayhawks, who spent a lot of time ranked inside the AP’s top five this year, had as friendly of a road to the Final Four as any other teams in the Big Dance, but instead made early exits. I, like Huggins, am of the thought process that it was still a solid year for the Big 12 (and I still view it as the strongest and deepest conference in the country), but a somewhat disappointing tournament run has me scratching my head, as it took a little bit of air out of the sails.