By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There’s this secret about Bob Huggins’ coaching success over the years.
It isn’t so much that he tries to keep it secret; it’s just that there has been so much else swirling around his programs over the years that it was overlooked.
People spoke of recruiting and toughness and strategy mostly when discussing Huggins, and surely you cannot win if you don’t recruit well, develop toughness on your team or make the right moves at the right time during games.
On a par with those other assets, however, is Huggins’ ability as a teacher.
Throughout his career at Cincinnati you would see him bring talented kids in and make them better. They often were the toughest kind of kids to teach for they were talented at a lower level and had so much success that they were hardly ready to listen.
But Huggins would get through to them, just as he has done at West Virginia University right from the very first year he walked through the door replacing John Beilein.
Beilein had a wonderfully gifted athlete in Joe Alexander whom he simply couldn’t get through to, things deteriorating to the point that Alexander was becoming an afterthought in the Beilein system as he ran it at WVU.
Huggins came on, worked extensively with Alexander, pushed him hard. It took almost half of a season but he was able to bring out in him enough ability the he became a first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Make no doubt that Huggins’ influence on Kevin Jones was huge in developing him into not only a scorer but a strong rebounder with an all-around style of play that got him to the NBA.
It was no different with Joe Mazzulla, a point guard whose skills Huggins smoothed over and to whom he helped pass on a knowledge of the game that he is now using in coaching.
Huggins’ one-time guard at WVU, Truck Bryant, talked about the lessons he learned, not always the easy way.
“Off the court, he helped me mature in a man. On the court, it was the same; he got me to be mentally prepared to play at a high level. We had our differences at times, but who doesn’t? He helped make me a better leader,” Bryant said.
This knowledge of the game that Huggins possesses is often overlooked by the general public but not by other coaches. He has authored a number of coaching books that may not qualify as bibles but that have helped a lot of budding coaches through their early years while videos and clinic appearances have also been heavily sought after.
This season, however, has been one of Huggins’ most challenging, for he has had to put together a team almost from scratch, completely change its style.
A year ago he brought a “made-for-Big East-play” team into the Big 12 and could not compete with it.
During the off-season he changed the pieces around, changed the approach and came in with a completely reshaped philosophy of basketball, one still built on defense and toughness, but a different kind of toughness.
This was not a team that will wear the “Thuggins” nickname.
In fact, it came into the season without a proven big man, hoping to rely on freshman Devin Williams and expecting to redshirt Brandon Watkins, a tall, long-armed, lanky kid out of Atlanta who came with more potential than ability.
This, however, was something Huggins could get into as the teacher that he is.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is the magnificent turnaround he got out of his point guard Juwan Staten. A transfer from Dayton who sat out a season, Staten’s first season was lacking in almost every area you wanted from a point guard.
This year he is among the top point guards in the Big 12, if not the nation, his numbers having taken a startling jump upward.
A year ago he averaged 7.6 points a game, this season more than double at 16.8. Last year, in 31 games he had 101 assists. This year, in just 14 games, he already has 90 assists.
And last year his shooting percentage was a ridiculous 37.6 percent while this year it’s an equally ridiculous – in the good sense of that word – 52.1 percent.
But where Huggins has done the best teaching job is with two freshmen big men, Williams and Watkins.
Each has contributed heavily, Williams both as a rebounder and scorer and Watkins coming out of nowhere to be an inside force defensively up around the rim and rebounding.
“They’re worlds better now,” Huggins said after WVU beat Texas Tech to sweep its Texas swing before this Saturday’s home game against No. 10 Oklahoma State. “There were a whole lot of people who didn’t think Brandon would ever make it when Brandon first showed up. He’s probably made more improvement than anybody on the team.
“And Devin is getting better,” Huggins continued. “But it’s hard for a freshman. You fly across the country to play in Dallas; then you get on a plane and fly (to Lubbock) and you practice and look at more film and you say, ‘OK, we’re playing again?’ You don’t do that in high school.”
Williams is averaging 12 points and 8.3 rebounds a game over the last four games, despite playing only 13 minutes against William & Mary due to a bad back.
“They can do a lot for us, especially on the defensive end because they give us a lot of rebounding,” Staten said. “And Brandon gives us something inside we don’t have, which is somebody who changes shots at the rim. He’s great in there for us.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.