By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins was sitting under the basket at the weight room end of the Coliseum, the media scrum that had gathered around him having slid down to talk with Deniz Kilicli, who was about to experience the emotion of his Senior Day at West Virginia University today.
For him, this Saturday afternoon game against Iowa State is obviously the end of a journey, the final home game, but for Huggins there was a blurred line.
Was this the end of a journey or the start of a new one?
A horrible year was about to end, probably only the Big 12 Tournament ahead of him, but his vision was about to change toward next year.
“It’s like that every year, isn’t it?” he was asked.
“Not really,” came the answer. “Some years you have players like Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones coming back.”
This year it isn’t that way. This team that he’s had has been different, terribly different.
“I’ve never been in this situation before,” Huggins said.
He thought back to his roots.
“Obviously, my first year at Walsh, my first year at Akron,” he said, referring to 14-16 and 12-14 seasons. “My first year at Akron I got four guys back and the guy they lost was the leading scorer in the country … and they lost with him.”
So what does he do now?
“I would assume you do the same thing I did at Walsh and my second year at Akron. … You go get some impact players,” he said.
So Huggins is shopping for players, but what is he looking for?
This might give you an idea.
“I turned Michigan State on last night,” he said. “Adreian Payne, who I thought we were going to get, he goes in and kind of get pushed a little bit on a dunk, misses it, falls down and lands on his shoulder, hits his head on the floor, kind of rolls over, looks up and here comes the ball. Well, he dives on the ball.”
That made a huge impression on Huggins.
“That’s what my guys have always done. If my guys now took a spill like that we’d be carrying them out to the ambulance.”
It’s toughness. It’s effort. It’s being in the gym when their opponents aren’t, getting better at what they do.
And you don’t do that unless you love what you do.
Huggins understands that he misjudged this team, that he never could figure out how to get through to them and what to do with them.
It is almost as it was with John Calipari at Kentucky, a friend of his and the winner of last year’s national championship who also has had a rough year. The Wildcats are 20-10 and struggling badly and Calipari sounds a lot like Huggins.
“I am so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team. I can’t even begin to tell you,” Calipari said after his team’s fourth straight loss on the road. “I’ve done this 20-some years. I’ve never had a team not cohesive this time of year. Every one of my teams (have been) cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win more than how they were playing. Every one of them had a fight. Well, if this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”
“I talked to Cal four or five days ago and in all honesty his complaint was the same as ours is … they don’t listen,” Huggins said.
He has tried to lead the way he has led his other teams, led them well enough that he is third winningest active coach in college basketball today.
“We just don’t fight through things. We’ll come down and miss a layup, then we’ll throw the ball to them for a layup, then there will be a missed shot that bounces out to them at the foul line. Now, all of a sudden, they’ve gotten three layups or dunks or a wide-open 3, and it’s like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ and we have our guys put their heads down,” he said. “I’ve never had that. I’ve always had my guys play extremely hard.”
He has been lost on how to correct it.
“It’s like Groundhog Day. It never changes. Even if you have a terrible basketball acumen, you should learn something. This last game we had a big guarding a guy in the corner on a fast break. It happens all the time to every team in America.
“He runs from the corner to high post to switch out with a guard. As he’s running there, the guard doesn’t know what’s going on, they get his guy the ball and he has like 3 seconds to aim it. That’s never happened. Never.”
It’s almost over, though, and Huggins can start over with a new group. It might even be good for him, give him a challenge to get back to where he and West Virginia were.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.