By Cam Huffman
I’ve often been criticized for being too soft when it comes to my evaluation of the West Virginia University basketball program and too negative when it comes to the football team.
I often come to the defense of Bob Huggins, some have said, while criticizing Dana Holgorsen at every opportunity.
I’m not here to defend myself. In fact, there may be some merit to those accusations. I am a little easier on Huggins than I am on Holgorsen, but there’s a reason.
Huggins has won almost 750 career games. He’s been to the NCAA Tournament 20 times and advanced to the Final Four twice. Huggins has won 12 regular-season conference championships and 10 conference tournament championships, including the ultra-competitive Big East title.
Holgorsen, meanwhile, has won 21 games in 38 opportunities.
Huggins has built up some credibility. When he says he’s going to turn things around, I tend to believe him.
But the recent departure of sophomore guard Eron Harris has me questioning both the WVU basketball program’s present and future.
Nobody, including Huggins, is going to deny the slow decline since the Final Four appearance in 2010. After winning 31 games that season, WVU won 21 the next year, falling a game short of the Sweet 16. The next year, WVU won 19 and bailed out quickly, getting blown out by Gonzaga in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
The program hit rock bottom — or at least as close as it’s been to that point since 2002, when Gale Catlett’s club went 8-20 in the coach’s final season — a year ago when it finished 13-19 and eighth in the 10-team Big 12.
There were some signs of progress this winter as the team won 17 games and had impressive wins over the likes of Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor.
Without a single senior on the roster and with the league’s leading scorer, Juwan Staten, and fourth-leading scorer, Harris, scheduled to return, there was reason to believe the Mountaineers were on their way back toward rejoining the elite in college basketball.
Harris’ loss, though, greatly changes that expectation. He admittedly was inconsistent at times and defended about as well as the event staff trying to keep WVU students off the floor after the win over Kansas. But when the Mountaineers were at their best this year, Harris was at the top of his game.
Harris scored 28 in the 92-86 win over the No. 8 Jayhawks to end the regular season. He put up 28 in a 91-86 overtime win over No. 21 Oklahoma, and he scored 16 the next night in a blowout win over No. 11 Iowa State.
To put it simply, Harris’ transfer will have an impact on WVU basketball, and it won’t be a positive one.
Harris’ explanation was that he simply wanted to be closer to home. That makes sense. People get homesick. As Forest Gump explained when running through a pile of dog feces, “It happens.”
Taken in context with other recent departures, though, there’s definite reason for Mountaineer fans to be concerned.
Since that Final Four run in 2010, WVU has signed 20 players out of either high school or junior college. Seven are still on the roster, and another, Dominique Rutledge, made an impact on last year’s team. Two more, Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon, were ineligible this season but are expected to be on the floor next winter.
The other half ended up leaving the program for one reason or the other. Remember Noah Cottrill? How about David Nyarsuk? Surely you haven’t forgotten the mass exit of Keaton Miles, Jabarie Hinds and Aaron Brown after last season’s disaster?
Turnover is natural in college basketball. Players and coaches aren’t going to mix sometimes. A player might miss home and decide to move closer.
But when half the players over a four-year period run away from Morgantown faster than a teenager when the cops show up to a party, it’s time to ask what’s wrong.