The scene was a warm one on a cold night, a scene no one had seen much of this season.
West Virginia University’s narrow 60-58 victory over Texas had ended an hour or so earlier, and coach Bob Huggins and his players had completed their media duties. As Huggins emerged from the bowels of the Coliseum that house the locker rooms and like, he approached a big, hulking figure, his center, Deniz Kilicli.
The two had spent much of the season on different pages of the West Virginia playbook, Huggins hoping to get more out of the senior, the single holdover from the Final Four team, and had been quite open and public about his displeasure with what he was watching on the court.
But now, on this night when Kilicli had made the difference in the victory over Texas, when he had put together his second consecutive solid performance in WVU’s first two-game winning streak since early December, he put his arm around Kilicli’s shoulder and the two men walked out of the arena in lock step and in warm conversation.
See, nothing in Huggins’ criticism was personal or to be taken of his view of the 6-9 Turkish import outside the gym.
“Deniz is a great guy,” Huggins said when asked to talk about him as a person and influence on his teammates. “If you ask me what his attributes are, I will tell you he’s a really great person. Everybody likes him. He could probably be student body president if he wanted to be. He’s like the mayor of the Mountainlair.”
The mayor of the Mountainlair — Deniz Kilicli?
On the floor, when you watch him muscle people around, he doesn’t seem to be what Huggins would call “a great role model, a great person.”
Yet he is.
Someone asked emerging freshman star Eron Harris about the presence of Kilicli as a senior, an intimidating but friendly teammate.
“Deniz is not an intimidating guy,” he stated flat out. “If you don’t know him, he is, but he is the total opposite of an intimidating guy.”
He then went on to explain what he meant.
“Inside he is like the smallest guy you’ve ever seen,” Harris said. “He doesn’t know he’s that big. He’s like a brother to me. He tells me he loves me. As soon as I got here he helped me ... helped me with the weight training coach, he helped me keep my mind right. He’s been a big help to me.”
Sometimes he needs people pushing him, which is why Huggins has been on him so hard earlier this year, feeling he hadn’t worked with the dedication necessary to reach his best play.
Harris explained what he thought had been happening.
“He’s getting his confidence now,” the freshman guard said. “That’s what it’s been with him, confidence. He’s getting in the gym more and working on his game. Working on his game gets his confidence right. Today was a big confidence builder.”
Kilicli, however, doesn’t agree with that assessment.
“I was always confident. I never lost my confidence. It will work sometimes. It won’t work sometimes,” he said.
More than confidence, he needed a tangible incentive, and Texas gave him that as he led the Mountaineers to that victory.
“The importance of this game was it was the Texas game. My buddy played in Texas. When I was in high school and Texas didn’t want me — those are the things I was thinking about. It was personal to me,” he said.
“They were interested in something but they didn’t want me. I’m kind of glad they didn’t want me.
“It’s kind of a personal thing. You wonder why. It’s not a problem to me. I’m not saying I wish I went there. It’s just you think, ‘Why didn’t they like me?’”
His close friend and teammate on the Turkish national team, Dogus Balbay, played at Texas, and so, in a way, this latest game was Kilicli showing the Longhorns that they made a mistake in passing him up, something coach Rick Barnes already knows.
He was truly impressed by Kilicli’s game.
“I love his little runner,” he said. “Obviously, the scouting report is to make him go the other way. We got him off the lane a few times and we had a chance to sandwich him in the lane a few times, but we didn’t make the play.
“I like his running hook, and I think they should teach it to a lot more people because it’s an effective shot. We’ve tried to do that with our big guys, but he’s really good at it,” Barnes continued. “He fights hard for his position and moving his feet. They are extremely well coached in getting him the ball when he’s open.”
And now he seems to know what to do with it, making WVU a far more effective offensive team.
“He’s active in the post. What people don’t appreciate is he occupies so many people down there,” Huggins said, inferring if people are dropping off to help out, it creates outside shots for the jump shooters.
Just as important, the other players are now figuring out how to get him the ball in position when he is open.
“You go down there in the post and root around with 260-pound guys and then you don’t get the ball when you are open, you’d be a little frustrated,” Huggins said of Kilicli’s early-season problems.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.
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