To a man, WVU players said the workouts in the days before Wednesday night’s 67-61 defeat were lacking in some way. For some reason, the energy and the urgency that had been a part of practices during the team’s strong run to end the regular season just wasn’t there.
Mountaineer forward Cam Thoroughman first volunteered that bit of insight. But sometimes, players simply look for even minor reasons or possible explanations for losses, and they occasionally exaggerate things as a result.
So the question was posed to several of Thoroughman’s teammates as well. In turn, fellow senior John Flowers and juniors Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones all agreed -- something was different, and not in a good way, about the way the team worked in the last few days.
The questions, then, are simultaneously simple and complex: how and why is that the case, just after West Virginia’s best stretch of games of the season (when its hard work was rewarded and one would imagine a bit of positive reinforcement had resulted) and just before its chance to defend the program’s Big East championship on basketball’s biggest stage?
Meaningful answers to those queries were few and far between in the immediate aftermath of the loss. Truly, there weren’t many answers at all. Most players claimed ignorance as to why things went the way they did.
“We just kind of were going through the motions and stuff,” Flowers said. “We’ve got to practice harder ... I don’t know, man. It’s just frustrating. It’s frustrating, man.
“I really can’t explain it,” Jones added. “I guess it’s just a lot of people, I don’t know, focused on different things. It wasn’t the game. It showed out there.”
“I don’t really know,” Thoroughman said. “We just need to have better [practices].”
“Sometimes, it just happens. I don’t know [why].”
You’ll have to excuse the players if they weren’t exactly speaking eloquently about something they just couldn’t explain. After all, there really is no good reason for any team -- let alone one that will head to the NCAA Tournament -- to not be intrinsically motivated at this time of year.
Head coach Bob Huggins said so himself before his team ever left Morgantown for the Big East Tournament, dismissing questions about whether his players would have any extra juice for a match-up with Marquette after losing a regular season game against the Golden Eagles earlier this year.
“What kind of motivation do you need at this time of year?” Huggins asked rhetorically on Monday. “You know, all these guys were there last year and experienced winning the tournament. I think that’s enough motivation.”
Huggins, as he pretty much always is, was right. There shouldn’t have been any need for some outside circumstance to generate emotion from the Mountaineers.
Despite its flaws (of which there are many, as Marquette showed on Wednesday night), his team has shown an ability to, at the very least, compete with some of the nation’s best this season.
It came to Madison Square Garden riding high after beating three nationally-ranked opponents in its last three home games.
If it had beaten Marquette (and seeds held), it would have faced a Louisville team it defeated in the regular season finale in the Big East quarterfinals. With a win there, it could have possibly taken on a Notre Dame team it beat just a week or so earlier in the league semifinals.
With that relatively favorable draw (if having to play three NCAA Tournament teams in three days, two of which will likely be no worse than a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, can ever be called “favorable”), West Virginia had every reason to dream big.
Sure, it wouldn’t be easy, but it truly could have made a run to the conference finals and had a chance to repeat as Big East champions. And everyone saw what a boost that magical run in New York last March did to the Mountaineers’ confidence, which was sky-high all the way through their Elite Eight upset of Kentucky.
With all that in its favor, anyone with a true competitor’s spirit would have been hyped up to the max to take the floor in New York City. For whatever reason, at least some of the members of this team (if you believe the players) apparently were not.
Maybe they thought the ship had been righted for good at the end of the regular season. Maybe they didn’t feel like they had anything to play for (though a Big East championship and a loftier NCAA Tournament seed sure seemed to be enough to motivate WVU last year).
They were wrong.
If that attitude doesn’t change -- and change immediately -- West Virginia is more likely to go the way of the 2009 team (which flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a lethargic loss to Dayton) than the 2010 team (which won a conference title and went to the Final Four).
Some teams are good enough to still win games while taking an occasional “day off.” The Mountaineers just don’t have that kind of talent.
After an entire regular season, one that was a roller coaster ride if there ever was one, you would think they would have learned that. If they haven’t by now, when will they?