There are 350 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams, and 99.71428% of them concluded their season with some degree of disappointment.
Usually that ending angst increases the better a team is. Despite an incredible career as a Hall of Fame player, coach and executive, Mountaineer great Jerry West has long maintained that his biggest disappointment was in falling by a single point to California, 71-70, in the 1959 NCAA championship game. He also led WVU into the NCAA tournament in 1958 and 1960, absorbing an early round upset in each, but the one that hurt him the most was the one where he went the furthest.
After an 18-8 regular season, the 2020-21 Mountaineer reached the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in the 14-year tenure of West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. No coach has taken WVU to as many NCAA tourneys.
March Madness for this year’s West Virginia squad came to a close in the second round of the NCAAs, as an 84-67 win over Morehead State was followed by a season-ending 75-72 loss at the hands of Syracuse.
It was the 68th time in the past 80 years that WVU’s men’s basketball season has come to end with a loss. Those finale victories during that eight-decade span, came when West Virginia wrapped up its campaign twice with NIT titles (1942 and 2008), five times it concluded with postseason consolation wins (ECAC in 1976, NCAA in 1960 and ’63, Southern Conference in 1951 and NIT in 1946), and five times it finished with a regular-season victory (2020 because COVID cancelled the postseason, and while playing as an independent in 1972, ’71, ’48 and ’43).
So, ending with a loss this season is the norm, but still that didn’t mean there wasn’t disappointing from players and fans alike. Some of those outside the program took their ire way, way too far with horrible social media posts directed at the Mountaineers, but I’ll save my disgust with those keyboard bullies for another editorial.
For now, I’ll concentrate on those who left their blood, sweat and tears on the court.
At the end of its run, WVU was 19-10. Each of its losses was to a team that made the NCAA tournament field, as were nine of its wins. It was also 5-7 against teams rated in the Associated Press’s top 25 at the time of the meeting.
All those were good, solid numbers, but the thing that kept them from being truly great were West Virginia’s struggles in close games.
The Mountaineers were just 5-9 in contests decided by five points or fewer this season, while going 14-1 when the margin was greater than five points. Their only loss in that category was a 79-65 defeat at Kansas in December.
Through much of the season, West Virginia was doing what you’d expect in very close games – splitting them. Deuce McBride’s last second drive to defeat Texas Tech, 88-87, was countered by Andrew Jones’ 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Texas an 84-82 victory in the WVU Coliseum. That’s the way it went; one heartbreaking loss, like to Gonzaga (87-82), was followed by a nailbiting win, as against Iowa State (70-65).
In the final five weeks of the season, though, West Virginia had trouble prying a victory from a tight contest. Other than an 84-82 win at Texas on Feb. 20, the Mountaineers dropped five of their last six games decided by five points or fewer. Two of those were overtime affairs, falling in double OT to No. 2 Oklahoma (91-90) and in one overtime to No. 3 Baylor (94-89). And both their postseason losses were by just three points – 72-79 to No. 12 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament and 75-72 to Syracuse in the NCAA’s second round.
Imagine what the 2020-21 season could have been if WVU had turned around that 5-9 record in close games to 9-5? West Virginia already had spent the entire 2020-21 season in the top 20, with six of those weeks in the top 10 and a high of No. 6. A few more wins would have allowed for even brighter lights and potentially an even deeper NCAA run.
But the difference between a good team and a great one is usually how it fares when the competition gets tight. The Mountaineers were no doubt a good team this past season, but their inability to perform better in close games kept them from being a great one.