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Mike Casazza: WVU was not at home in Big 12

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Inside the Sprint Center Wednesday night, with a smattering of gold-clad fans who could watch in person what many other West Virginia fans strained to watch from home or from a bar, came a reality that had been hovering above for a while.

The season had ended with a seventh straight loss, this one 71-69 just before the buzzer against Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 Conference tournament. The Mountaineers were 13-19 overall, their worst season since 2002 and first without a player averaging double figures since 1944.

As disappointments go, this wasn't much different than the football team that started 5-0 before losing five in a row and finishing 7-6 with a far more embarrassing season-ending loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. But while those Mountaineers were against a traditional enemy in an area that had been so good to the athletic department through the years, these Mountaineers were far from home.

Far from metropolitan New York, far from Madison Square Garden, which three years earlier had played a John Denver song while WVU cut down the nets for winning the Big East tournament title. Where WVU could own the back pages of New York's tabloids, the local paper here Thursday referred to the University of West Virginia and UWV.

The fans who hadn't really made the trips to Kansas and Texas and Iowa like they used to travel to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and even South Florida were again largely absent. So, too, was the anticipation, the electricity, the intensity, the severity of postseasons past WVU used to know.

It was all so clear, never as impossible to ignore as it was after the early exit from the conference championship: This Big 12 thing wasn't nearly as cool as it was supposed to be. The Mountaineers were the outsiders, not the outliers. They were the norms, not the exceptions. They were susceptible to the transitional elements we all ought to have realized were so powerful.

And the worst part is that the football and the men's basketball teams might be a year away from getting it right. It might be longer.

The money is great. The finances make sense. There will come greater rewards from greater riches. But there remains a lot left to reconcile with regard to rivalries and geography and travel and personnel. Bob Huggins said again that he messed up his roster after his sixth WVU season left him with just his third losing record in 28 years as a Division I head coach.

With the exception of Matt Humphrey, a senior who transferred to WVU over the summer, and who was never really his healthy self this season, and Volodymyr Gerun, who signed after Humphrey arrived, the Mountaineers who played this season were all committed to this season before WVU left the Big East for the Big 12.

The Big 12 is a much more mobile, offensive league than the Big East. Huggins has to change the roster, and he will.

There were three seniors who played their last college games Wednesday night. Trust there were others who saw their last day in a WVU uniform. Who? Easy to speculate, hard to say for certain, but that leads to another topic for reconciliation.

What in the world does Huggins do with Aaric Murray, the talented, though conflicted junior center who was at his best and worst in what was either his final game of the season or in college?

He had 11 points and eight rebounds and blocked two shots, all in the second half. He also picked up a technical foul for saying something particularly naughty to official John Higgins, blew a late defensive rotation that allowed a key basket, traveled on WVU's penultimate possession and then was one of three Mountaineers who were in the paint and never blocked out Dejan Kravic, who tipped in the game-winning shot.

In fewer words, he was the player who was benched for a half of one game and left home for another, but also the player who really can fit into the Big 12 style where centers are more like power forwards and power forwards are more like small forwards.

There has been talk from both Huggins and Murray that Murray would play professionally next season. There's been suspicion Huggins wouldn't want Murray next season. Murray said Wednesday he'd like to come back for the 2014 season.

"The only reason I won't be back is if Coach won't let me come back," he said. "That's it."

Murray turns 24 in July, but he needs to grow up. He knows that, too. He admits that.

"I definitely learned games aren't won during game day," he said. "They're won during the offseason. I wasn't working as hard as I should have been."

He has an edge that, when harnessed, makes him very difficult for opponents to deal with during a game. The same edge is hard for him to control and harder for his teammates to deal with whether in games or practices or elsewhere.

I'm struggling to think of a better place for him to learn to better manage and apply it than under the watch of Huggins who, let's be honest, has had better players with worse attitudes.

And let's stick with the truthfulness: When Murray has his head in the game, he's better than a replacement who would arrive next season from high school or junior college and have to learn many things that Murray already knows and seems willing to take on this offseason.

He needs, and wants, the offseason to sharpen shooting and polish post moves, to become a better rebounder and shot blocker and passer, to basically work with a conviction he's never had before.

"I just think my approach now has to be to work harder," he said. "I think that will rub off on all the freshmen coming in instead of me not working hard and having that rub off on the freshmen."

Murray says all the right things, but it's time to do them, perhaps only if Huggins lets him.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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