By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn the voice at the other end of the line belonged to Bob Huggins, for it was telling a story that you’d been watching develop all season with Huggins’ West Virginia basketball team.
The coach on the line during the first Big 12 coaches’ conference call of the new season was talking about the tough scheduled his team had played and about how it had suffered four excruciating, tough losses.
Certainly, we’ve all heard Huggins sing that song, facing Wisconsin and Missouri and Gonzaga and Purdue and losing all four of those games, none of them in double figures.
“It’s been a good schedule,” the coach said. “We learned in certain ways how we’ve been exposed in certain games. We learned we not always play great, but when we’re not playing great we have to make other team play bad and do the things that tough teams do to win last minute type games or last couple of possession games. We haven’t been able to do that four times. You know three of our losses have come on the last possession.
“Certainly, that’s a good teaching point.”
Shoot, wasn’t Huggins saying something like that the other day, about how his team had to find a way down the stretch to win tough games, but that it was a young team not quite ready for that?
“I’m not (complaining) about schedules,” this coach continued. “It’s hard for a bunch of new kids and five new starters. You haven’t had a chance to play your best and get confidence, and you haven’t had a chance to play poorly to win a game. You had to be good. I don’t think we’ve had a game where we haven’t had to be our best since mid-November.”
Yeah, that’s the way it’s been around here all season. You have to find ways to close out games, and Huggins team hadn’t been doing that, so it would only make sense that he’d be talking about it on the coaches conference call.
But it wasn’t Huggins who was continuing down that line.
“If you look at losses, they’ve all been coming from behind,” he began. “We’re down double figures at Colorado. We’re down 18 to Florida; we’re down 11 to Villanova. And we’re down 8 with three minutes left yesterday to San Diego State.”
Huggins’ Mountaineers came back from large deficits against Wisconsin and Missouri, only to fall short, too.
“You know, we’ve made some good plays to put ourselves back in games,” the coach continued. “I don’t think it’s the last minute. I think it’s more the mistakes we’ve made the last possession, if that makes any sense.
“We’ve done some good things to get us to the point where we could win those games. The biggest thing is we haven’t played as well in the teeth of the game, the first 10 minutes of the second half or something like that.
“We haven’t done it when we had a chance to distance ourselves or make up some ground. We put too much pressure on ourselves. When you play from behind, it’s like every mistake is magnified as the game goes on because you lose time to catch up.
“That’s where we kind of screwed up.”
You wanted to interrupt, to say “Operator, are you sure you haven’t crossed lines, that this isn’t Bob Huggins, but the coach kept on talking.
“We kind of lollygagged — lollygagged is probably not a good term or in Webster’s dictionary — but we’ve kind of jacked around during certain parts of the game. We’ve had opportunities, but we let those opportunities slip away and that put so much pressure on us to be perfect late … and obviously we haven’t been.”
Okay, enough, whose season has mirrored West Virginia’s so closely that they sound almost identical?
Kansas coach Bill Self, that’s who.
Proud Kansas, perennial champion of the Big 12. Legendary Kansas, Wilt Chamberlain’s college, that’s who has four non-conference losses, much as WVU has five. That’s the team that hasn’t been able to win close games, even with the presence of that great Canadian natural resource.
We offer this as evidence that just maybe the task ahead of WVU isn’t quite as great as it seemed, that maybe those five non-conference losses didn’t doom them to post-season extinction. After all, not only did Kansas lose again to San Diego State on Sunday, but Oklahoma State also lost to Kansas State in the first weekend of league play.
Indications are this is going to be a long, tough season for everyone.
“Each and every game will be close and hard fought,” predicted Baylor Coach Scott Drew. “Who makes free throws, executes down the stretch, the bounce of the ball will decide games. A true round-robin allows you to have a true champion.”
And, it would seem, both West Virginia and Kansas will learn from their mistakes, setting up a thrilling run toward the NCAAs.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel