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February 11, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN-Huggins may be doing one of his best jobs

MORGANTOWN — One thousand games into his career, it is perhaps time to discuss Bob Huggins, who has spent the last 199 of them coaching at West Virginia University, his alma mater.

To be quite frank, when you have been around the coaching scene for 30 years, people begin to re-examine you, especially when you come off your first non-20-victory season in seven years and follow it with a season in which just .500 is a battle.

They begin to question most everything that you do, wondering if the game has not caught up with you, wondering if the wick isn’t just beginning to become a bit short.

Certainly, this has been one of Huggins’ most challenging seasons being for the first time without any part of the group that led him to some of his greatest moments — Devin Ebanks, Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones.

He was starting pretty much from scratch and somehow found himself with a group that did not seem to fit the mold he had created for his kind of team ... tough, hard-nosed, a team that rebounds and runs crisp motion and makes its shots.

That is why, as that team now has won three in a row against the league’s bottom feeders, it seems so important that things appear to be changing for the better, which could lead you to the conclusion that Huggins may be in the process of doing one of his best coaching jobs rather than one of his worst.

To begin with, great teams play to a coach’s personality. The Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi were more Ray Nitschke than Bart Starr in image, just as the Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers were more Joe Montana than Bill Romanowski.

Huggins’ public persona is more snarling, scratching, clawing than anything else, yet his team isn’t built that way.

“We’ve said all along we have good guys, guys you want to take home to your mother — great people who conduct themselves in a classy way,” he said after beating TCU on Saturday.

Then he added something very important.

“Sometimes being too nice is a detriment, but we’re getting tougher.”

And that has been part of what his coaching this year has been all about, this building toughness.

It’s why you see Kevin Noreen on the court often more than Aaric Murray, why he runs players in and out and in and out, often in their face trying to build a way of playing as much as just following the Xs and the Os of the game.

While on the surface Huggins would appear to be less than the most patient man in the world, he has had to have patience with this team because of its lack of experience, for which there is no substitute.

Again, following the TCU win, he noted how important it was that his players now seem to be finding themselves.

“We all expect more. We’re playing three sophomores and two freshmen at guards. That’s generally not a recipe for success,” he said.

The result has been a team that made mistake after mistake ... much of it showing up in a low shooting percentage, one that had the team ranked as low as 346th in the nation shooting field goals.

Was it really that bad a shooting team or was it not getting itself in position to take shots it could make?

What is happening lately would suggest that Huggins is finally getting across to the them how to get the ball into an open shooter’s hands more often, the result being that WVU shot 51.2 percent from the floor against TCU, following up shooting 46.2 percent against Texas and 56.5 percent against Texas Tech in its last three games.

The Mountaineers have even become sharpshooters from 3-point range, hitting 21 of their last 41.

“I think we’re just playing better,” sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds said following his seconde straight double-figure performance after going scoreless against Texas Tech three games back. “When you’re playing well and guarding well and all those other things, it takes a little bit of pressure off the shooting.”

Part of this has to do with another factor, freshman guard Terry Henderson shaking off the effects of a back injury that kept him out of a couple of games and slowed him in practice, for he has shown himself to be the best of the team’s outside shooters when healthy.

In truth, with Henderson and Eron Harris, WVU has a one-two punch on the outside who can hit shots and make athletic moves, but who had to be brought along slowly by Huggins into the offense.

Now they appear to be there to offer a dynamic that wasn’t available to him earlier, a way to put points on the board via jump shots.

“It’s hard for a defense when we’ve got two athletic shooters who can get open,” Henderson said. “It’s hard to cover that.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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