By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins’ message for his West Virginia University basketball team after it had lost to Davidson, 63-60, in a game it should have won in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., Friday was strongly worded and straightforward.
He delivered it to them in a long, post-game lecture in what was a quiet, dour locker room. and he delivered it publicly later as he talked on his post-game radio show.
Simply put, he said they weren’t very good, and if they didn’t learn to play hard, practice hard, listen hard and dedicate themselves to the job, they weren’t going to be very good.
“We have yet to grasp the concept that you have to play every play,” Huggins said. “You can’t take plays off.”
It sounds simple and as basic as you can get, but it takes time to get across, and when you have a new group, such as the one Huggins now is putting on the floor, a group that has staggered into the season at 1-2 with a 4:30 p.m. game Sunday against Big 12 opponent Oklahoma to close out the tournament, it can be as complicated as advanced calculus.
To make his point, Huggins recalled an incident his first year at WVU.
“We lose to Xavier in the NCAAs, and I get Da’Sean Butler and Wellington Smith, put my arm around both of them and say ‘You guys understand we lost the game because you guys took plays off,’ he began.
“They say, ‘We want to be better; we want to advance,’ so I say to them ‘You want to go to the Final Four, you want to play for the national
championship, get it in your head you cannot take plays off.’ I think the result was they took very few plays off (the rest of their careers).”
And you might have noticed, they made it to the Final Four.
Now talk of the Final Four may sound rather ridiculous at the moment, but it is always on a great coach’s mind, and he wants it on his players’ minds and he knows there are numerous ways to get there, but none without playing the game the way it has to be played … which is hard and which is smart.
“I told them in there, that wasn’t a Final Four talent team (Davidson), but it was a Final Four team,” he said. “It was a team; they played together; they did the right things; they cared so much.”
To Huggins, Davidson is an example WVU will have to follow if it is to improve and advance as the season goes on.
“This team in here (West Virginia) is not an extremely talented team. In fact, it’s not very talented at all,” said Huggins, perhaps exaggerating a bit there to make his point. “We have some guys who can do some things. Individually, we’re not very good, but can be good collectively, if we will … if we will.
“But you can’t continually keep throwing the ball up two feet from the basket and come up empty. You can’t continually come down in transition and come up empty. You can’t do that. We have to do a much better job of rebounding the ball … a much, much better job of rebounding the ball.”
Now Huggins was rolling, the images from the Davidson game pouring back into his mind.
“I mean, we’re going to miss shots. Everyone misses shots. Everyone has bad days. We have not shot the ball well from 3. We got it to down to 8 or 9. Jabarie Hinds comes down and has a wide-open 3. Wide open. I want him to shoot it, and he misses it. Fine, but let’s rebound the ball. Let’s give ourselves another chance.”
Hinds finished with eight points, missed both his 3s, shot 4 for 9 from the field.
But misses occur. What happens after a miss is what Huggins wants to emphasize. He wants them to rebound, to play defense.
“We have so many guys who miss shots on one end and come down and let their guy score because they’re worried about what happened down here,” Huggins said. “I don’t like guys missing shots as much as they don’t like missing shots. But get back and guard.
“Until we grasp the concept of playing hard all the time and until we do that we’re going to be in a whole bunch of games like we were in.”
Things that went wrong now are eating at Huggins.
“We have an opportunity to cut it to one and miss two free throws and don’t get it over the rim,” he said, referring to a pair of free throws Matt Humphrey, the transfer from Boston College with the reputation as a shooter, missed. “We have to do a better job. I have to do a better job.”
It is effort on the court, and off. In fact, the off-the-court effort might be bugging Huggins as much as the on-the-court effort.
“Like I said to them, I’m not very technologically savvy, but we have an alum who gave a great deal of money so we could get these iPads so we could put every set, what their guy is going to do, the scouting reports in a drop. It’s all on their iPad,” he said.
What good is it if they don’t learn what’s on there?
“Now I’m standing there and I can’t run a set because as I’m looking out there, I know two of those guys don’t know the set. It’s hard to make an adjustment until they know what they’re doing.”
Effort, that’s what he’s asking.
The problem, he believes, is everywhere.
“In their defense, we were going to run a whole bunch of transition stuff (this year), which quite frankly hasn’t worked out. It’s hard to run transition when your two bigs can’t get down the floor,” he said. “We’re running with our wings, but we’ve got one big trotting down and the other big following him down.
“People say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Well, it’s because that’s all I have right now. We’re going to get more. We’re going to end up with five.”
By that he means in three more games Volodymyr Gerun’s six-game NCAA suspension for playing with professionals overseas before being recruited will be up, and Dominque Rutledge, who was not available for the Davidson game for an unannounced reason, will be back.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.