By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Cam Thoroughman looked around the basketball facility at West Virginia University on the first day of Bob Huggins Fantasy Camp, thought for a moment about how much things had changed in the WVU basketball program since he first walked through the Coliseum doors and how glad he was he had stayed the course.
John Beilein had brought him in as he built his team toward an NIT championship, and that was pretty much the way Thoroughman and his whole recruiting class liked it when the magic carpet they had been riding was pulled out from under them with Beilein leaving for Michigan.
In his place the controversial Bob Huggins had been named coach and brought with him a reputation for success but also for being a tough taskmaster, far different than the Beilein approach.
“We thought, ‘Is this guy going to come in and clean house?’ Everything goes through your head,” Thoroughman said. “There were eight of us freshmen who came in together, and some of us aren’t going to be here anymore.”
But Huggins surprised his new team.
“He never had that attitude. It was, ‘Let’s figures this out and let’s win,’” Thoroughman said.
Huggins understood what he was getting himself into, having taken over the Kansas State program just a year earlier following his controversial departure from Cincinnati.
He knew his reputation preceded him and that players would not really know what to expect as he took over, but he got some unexpected help to smooth his arrival over.
“If I remember correctly, I think the first thing that happened is seven or eight of my guys from Cincinnati showed up and said, ‘We want to talk to them,’” Huggins said. “They went in as a group and talked to the team about me, about (assistants) Larry [Harrison), about Eric (Martin) and about what was expected.
“They kind of set the stage for it. Right or wrong, there’s a perception of what it is. I think we had one guy leave at the time and we had a couple of guys who obviously weren’t going to play, so they went to another level where they could play.”
But the core of the team stuck together.
“I think I remember his words from the first meeting. He said, ‘This might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your whole life,’” Thoroughman said.
Players looked at one another.
“There was a lot of hesitation. We were scared, I guess,” Thoroughman said. “You spend a lot of time with these guys. During the year you are around them every single day and a lot of the hours of the day. Then someone comes in and says those words, it’s like, ‘Oh, man!’”
But they wanted to be challenged, in part because they were a talented group, winners of the NIT.
Huggins inherited a team that included Da’Sean Butler, Alex Ruoff, Joe Alexander, Joe Mazzulla, Darris Nichols, Jonnie West, Wellington Smith, Jamie Smalligan and Thoroughman and would add the next year Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant.
After a generation without an NBA player, WVU was lining them up.
That Huggins’ style differed from Beilein’s mattered not to the coach or his players.
“If you win on a consistent basis you do a pretty good job with coaching the fundamental things,” Huggins said. “Fundamentally, they were very good. They played the game the right way. There’s a right way and a wrong way to play, and his teams have always played the right way. We incorporated some of the stuff. That’s what coaches do; we steal from each other.”
Thoroughman believes that, in part, is what allowed the team to grow and stay together and become a Final Four team that would lose to Duke when at the doorstep of the championship game.
What they did made it difficult to watch what last season’s team went through, compiling Huggins’ first losing record since his first season as a collegiate head coach and failing to make any tournament.
“We bought in right from the git go,” Thoroughman said. “Of course, we didn’t have a choice.”
In some ways, Thoroughman thinks that his class’s uncertainty about its future under Huggins drove them in ways players who came in to play for Huggins don’t know.
“Now he’s recruiting guys to come in. I don’t know what their mindset is but our mindset was we better show what we’re worth here. He didn’t recruit us. He didn’t pick us. If we don’t show him we’re worth something, maybe he’ll get different people,” Thoroughman said.
“Today, maybe there’s a different mindset because he recruited these people.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.