By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Considering all that has happened this year to derail the West Virginia University basketball team, the Mountaineers have actually put themselves in a good position as the calendar year comes to a close.
They had to deal with a pair of important players in Elijah Macon and Jonathon Holton failing to qualify, with a pre-season injury to Terry Henderson that slowed his development into the season and the necessity to throw some freshmen like Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian into the mix before they were fully ready to accept such important roles.
Still, the record is 7-4 with three really tough losses to Top 20 teams Wisconsin, Gonzaga and Missouri as Purdue of the Big Ten, sporting an 8-3 record, comes to town for a nationally televised game at 1 p.m. Sunday.
With all that has happened, WVU’s ability to survive can be credited to the play of their four guards – the aforementioned Henderson, who is now healed and reaching top form with four consecutive double-figure outings; Eron Harris, who has emerged as the team’s leading scorer; point guard Juwan Staten, who has 72 assists to 19 turnovers while averaging 16.6 points a game, and Gary Browne.
As important as the first three guards are, Browne’s story may be the most surprising, for he comes into the year following a dreadful season.
Browne’s play reached such levels last year that there was talk that he might not be brought back, but coach Bob Huggins saw an inner light shining in Browne that convinced him he would work his way back into top playing form.
Huggins let Jabarie Hines go and kept Browne, a move that has proven to be a solid for Browne has gone from being possibly the worst shooter on the team a year ago to the best.
A year ago Gary Browne shot 32.5 percent from the field, 20.4 percent from 3.
A college basketball player can shoot 20 percent from three wearing an eye patch.
Call it the sophomore jinx, if you must, but Gary Browne was awful … and knew it.
He set out to do something about it and put himself in the hands of the best shooting coach there ever was.
“I’m a guy who believes if I work hard every day God will take care of the results, sooner or later,” he said.
Browne was convinced he was a good shooter, always had been.
“I played on the Puerto Rican national team,” he said, offering that as evidence of his ability to shoot.
All he needed to do was work hard and gain confidence.
In fact, confidence was the key.
“If you don’t have confidence in what you do, you won’t be good at it,” he said. ”At the same time, the Lord helped me.”
He has been shooting as if there was some kind of divine intervention. This year his field-goal percentage went from that 32.5 percent to 53.8 percent, and his 3-point shooting has jumped from 20.4 percent to 47.8 percent.
In fact, he has 11 3s already, equaling the total he had in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
What this does is force the defense to play him tightly, which means they can’t offer help on Harris.
It also gives Browne a better chance to do what he does best, which is drive to the basket.
Browne understands that this upcoming game against Purdue is crucial to the Mountaineers’ drive to get back into post-season play.
“We mention to the guys we need every game, every non-conference game. We are 7-4. We have already lost four games. We can’t afford to lose any more games,” he said. “We need to make sure we beat teams like this. They are a good team from a good conference, and you’re never sure how they will end up.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.