By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There is going to come a day when Bob Huggins will back on this season as one of his finest coaching jobs.
It won’t come soon, for he is too close to it now, too involved, his emotions too entangled with the wins and the losses of his West Virginia University basketball team rather than what he had gone through to try and piece together a winner out of a team that just didn’t fit together, a team that won half of its first 16 games.
It was a team without a star, team without a go-to player, a team that couldn’t shoot straight, a team that really lacked the kind of chemistry necessary to endure tough times.
Yet this 8-8 team was just 10 points from being a 12-4 team, just three points in consecutive Big 12 losses from being 3-1 instead of 1-3 for it had managed to drop a 65-64 home game to Kansas State on a foul that was called against it and a 69-67 road game at Iowa State when a similar foul was overlooked.
This inconsistency in the officiating matched, if not topped, the inconsistency in the play of his team, and if there is any one thing a coach cannot handle it is inconsistency it leaves him with no right moves and no wrong moves, only guesses as to how a game will play out no matter what he does.
The inconsistency on his own team it is up to him to take care of, but what you do make of inconsistency in officiating?
In the Kansas State game, a one-point loss in which Shane Southwell sank a pair of free throws with 21.4 seconds left to win the game, Huggins had no problem with the call.
But when, in the closing seconds just after Iowa State had snatched the lead when WVU’s defense broke down at an inopportune moment, Eron Harris was trying to get the ball into position for a last-season shot, something he’s become pretty good at, only to be bumped and knocked to the floor.
Expecting a shrill whistle to quiet the riotous Iowa State crowd was useless for the officials were not about to do any tooting in that situation.
“I just can’t believe that we come off a home (game) where a guy gets bumped and falls down and it’s a foul, and there’s no question there’s a bump (on Harris) and he falls down and there’s no call,” Huggins would say in the aftermath.
“I don’t care what they call. It just has to be consistent throughout the league.”
Huggins, of course, has been around long enough to know that you are not going to get that kind consistency from officials, not in the Big 12 or Big East, not any more than he has been able to get it out of his players.
That is what has made this coaching job so challenging, so demanding and so frustrating, for Huggins has had to treat each game as an individual entity, and no matter what his plan was going in, he had to change of the fly to adjust to who was capable of doing what.
The Iowa State game was a perfect example, a game in which he fell 18 points behind, a game in which he was without the one guard who looked like he might be a consistent scorer for him, then lost the guard that gave his team energy in Gary Browne.
He tried to do what he could with the team he had, to get something out of his big men, but once again they could not deliver, and finally had to make some desperation moves, re-discovering Matt Humphrey in the shadows of basketball purgatory and getting him into the mix.
When no one else could score, Humphrey did. It helped light up Harris for a magnificent run of long-range 3s that allowed WVU to outscore Iowa State 31-13 down the stretch to darn near pull out the game.
Again, this shuffling, experimenting turned on lights for Huggins, showed him not only what his best chance to win this game was, but why, and that it probably was the right direction to take through the rest of the season.
“The truth of the matter is the team was built to play in the Big East where you got big, physical people,” Huggins said. “This is not a big, physical league by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone is playing smaller, quicker guys.
“We’re going to have to have to go small and take our chances because playing with those big guys hasn’t worked. It just has not worked.”
Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray and Dominique Rutledge haven’t been able to do what was asked of them.
“We started the year and we were going to hard hedge, and they didn’t do that. So we said we were going to push up and they didn’t do that. Then we said we were going to double and they didn’t do that. Then we said we were going to push to the baseline and they didn’t do that,” Huggins said.
“We’re going to switch everything. We’re going to play one big and switch everything. We’ll get one of those bigs who will slide his feet and stay in front of somebody. We’re really small, but we’ll front everything like we did today.”
Huggins admitted that he just couldn’t watch it any longer.
“I’m done. They’ve had every chance conceivable,” he said. “We don’t have a choice, particularly the way the game is being called. It’s not an indictment on anyone. It’s just the way the game is being called.
“It’s not advantageous to have a post guy, so we need to go small and really work hard on penetrating and pitching.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.