The Times West Virginian

Sports

November 26, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Teams are only as good as the players

MORGANTOWN — Coaches like to make more out of coaching than there really is.

Understandable, considering the salaries they draw, but in the end it falls on the players to perform.

Doesn’t matter the sport.

On Monday, in the Big 12 football coaches conference call someone asked Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose Cowboys had pulled off a stunning upset of previously unbeaten Baylor on Saturday night, whether or not that was the culmination of having strength and organization in a program he had run now for a decade.

He wasn’t biting on that.

“Ultimately,” he said, “college football comes down to the players. They decided they wanted to be a good football team.”

One would think that would be quite obvious.

We would always make Red Auerbach into a great basketball coach in the NBA when each night he was running Russell, Cousy, Sharman and various other superstars out on the floor. Same goes for Casey Stengel with Berra, Mantle and Maris or Sparky Anderson with Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez.

In sports, you really are as good as your players, and what you normally will find is a bigger difference in ability between rosters than coaches.

Certainly it’s no different here, something Bob Huggins acknowledged on Saturday after beating Presbyterian, 88-55, to send his 4-1 team to Cancun, Mexico, for the Cancun Classic where they will meet 5-1 Old Dominion at 6 p.m. today and Wisconsin or St. Louis on Wednesday.

This season his team is shooting far better than did last year’s group that gave him his first losing season since he was a rookie coach back in the ’70s and was often outshot by the fans who were chosen to come out of the stands at halftime to try to win $100.

Last year’s team shot .408 from the field and .316 from 3-point range, numbers that stand this year — against lesser competition, yes — at .506 and .483.

They rank 32nd in the country in field goal percentage, unimaginable a year ago.

So what happened? Did Huggins teach them to shoot? Did he create a new offense that gets them open?

Hardly. In fact, you ask him and this is what you get.

“We have better shooters this year. It’s pretty simple. You look like a pretty good offensive coach when the ball goes in. When it doesn’t go in, you don’t look so good,” he said.

And it’s going in because these guys, holdovers from a year ago, worked at it in the offseason, made it their priority.

They were embarrassed by the way they shot, embarrassed by the way they embarrassed their coach.

And secretly, a lot of it has to do with the way he coaches.

That’s right — there is more to this coaching than we were admitting earlier.

Everyone knows Huggins’ gruff, often profane, hard-nosed style of coaching.

Well, honest to goodness, this is a warmer, more cuddly Huggy bear running this team, one who believes he can get more out of this team with a more rational approach.

It’s a team he likes, a team he understands is built to intimidate opponents, to pound them on the boards.

Oh, he still can be tough, and is in practice. The treadmill is still a part of procedure, but he’s as likely to explain something to a player when he makes a mistake as he is to humiliate him, the result being that today’s player — who is different from those who were playing when he started coaching — reacts differently to tough love.

In many ways, Huggins is letting this team at least feel like it is running itself.

During the Presbyterian game, Eron Harris and Juwan Staten were drawing up plays and Huggins was all for it.

See, he sees that whatever is taking place is good. The key thing that had to improve from last year was shooting and scoring. Take a look at the five returning players and how they have improved in shooting and shooting from 3-point range:

• Eron Harris .416 to .475 and .352 to .483.

• Juwan Staten .376 to .574 and .000 to .500.

• Terry Henderson .437 to .500 and .400 to .417.

• Gary Browne from .325 to .632 and .204 to .583.

• Kevin Noreen from .400 to .500 and .304 to .000.

It has created a different look, a different confidence ... a different feel about the team.

“I think it’s more that we have confidence,” Harris said. “Huggs went out and recruited some guys who can make shots. They know they’re shot-makers and he lets them know that he has confidence in them.

“We’ve all got confidence in each other to where if the shot goes up, we all pretty much think it’s going in.”

Are they as talented as Kansas with Andrew Wiggins or Oklahoma State with Marcus Smart in the Big 12?

No, but let’s answer that question with a question.

Was Oklahoma State’s football team that lost to West Virginia as talented as Baylor on Saturday night?

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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