By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Remember back as fall was changing to winter and the disappointment of football was turning to hopes and dreams of a new West Virginia University basketball season?
Remember the optimism that came with the first snap of cold weather, the delight of the first snow of the year that signified a rebirth of athletic seasons and talk turned to ways this young basketball team might surprise its new league, the Big 12?
There were visits to the Internet to see when the conference tournament would be held and how much it would cost to attend and even glances at the NCAA brackets to see where this Mountaineer team might wind up.
That never crossed anyone’s mind, not with a Hall of Fame coach to be in control, with three hot transfers ready to join up with powerful Deniz Kilicli and a hot freshman class.
Now it is dreary February, spring around the corner but not yet ready to push away the gray skies or the cold winds of winter, reality slapping everyone in the face, a reality that almost surely will be no NCAA Tournament and that the dreams of December are ready to turn into a nightmare March.
Even Bob Huggins, the coach, understands how wrong he was in evaluating what he had on hand.
“We can say whatever we want to say. We can say we’re young, we’re this or we’re that. The reality is I probably overscheduled because I thought we were better than we are,” he said, before adding the kicker.
“I don’t know that I ever misjudged a group as much as I misjudged this group.”
Who would have imagined having the team that could not shoot straight, not at the school known for its sharpshooting in rifle.
That was evident early, but Huggins swore he’d fix it, just as he swore he’d fix the inability to protect the basketball and the lack of rebounding and the terrible defense … technical things that he had dealt with to some degree in the past, although never all together.
But he thought they’d mature, they’d learn how to play within themselves and that they’d develop the attitude he has built in every team he ever coached, a relentless attitude of confidence and fearlessness.
It never came.
He watched his team come apart on the floor at Kansas State right from the opening tip, and he doesn’t believe it was because of the hostile environment.
“I don’t know if it’s crowd. We do the same thing in practice. We panic. As soon as someone gets up on us and there’s some pressure, we panic,” Huggins said. “I continually tell our guys you get pressure, it’s not like they got a knife or a gun or a sword. They’re not allowed to touch you. They’re not allowed to touch you. So why would you panic?”
But under pressure they do what is wrong, not what is right.
“We get on the floor and panic and throw right to them instead of slowing down and finding a guy. It would help if our guys would come to the ball, too,” Huggins said.
That has put them down in games, not just at K-State, not even just at the start of games. It comes only when things aren’t going smoothly their way.
“I don’t think the crowd has anything to do with it. If it does, we have the wrong guys,” Huggins said.
“I asked Al McGuire one time. He took the Marquette job when it was a really bad job. I asked him when he knew he had a team. He said, ‘When you walk in any venue with no fear.’
“We’ve been that way for years. You look at our Big East road record, you look at the record we had at Cincinnati. We always walked in with no fear, but these guys panicked.”
That, of course, has bothered Huggins and other observers all season, that this team has been dictated to rather than doing the dictating of terms of play, that it hasn’t played in-your-face defense or been boss of the boards.
All of that, going with the shortcomings that came with an inability to put the ball in the basket or to handle it well, has made them unable to surprise anyone as the year went on.
It culminated in Manhattan, Kansas, when Huggins returned to the school where he once coached and put a team on the floor that did not compete until the pressure was off and the panic over, a team that played like what it was.
The aftermath, as Huggins described it, was not flattering.
“It’s like I told them in there. We had one of those days where they didn’t want to play,” Huggins said on his radio show. “I told them it looked like Jamestown. They are all curled up, rolling around on the floor like they’re about to die.”
Huggins absolved Kilicli from the comparison, saying he had never done that, but no one else.
“You find out about people in times of adversity. You find out what they are made of,” he said.
Now they play down the stretch, trying to salvage something from a lost year with Huggins still seeking players he can depend on next year, players he can build a winning team around.
He didn’t see a whole lot of them on this year’s team.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.