By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
For a few moments late on a Wednesday night, it looked as though West Virginia University might actually have figured out this game of basketball that had baffled the Mountaineers throughout this rapidly ending season.
A 17-point Oklahoma lead had been sliced to six points and the Mountaineers had scored seven straight, much of it due to some nifty play by big man Aaric Murray, who was hitting shots, making passes and grabbing rebounds in what would eventually lead to an evening of 10 points, four rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot in 20 minutes of play.
It was all the kind of stuff coach Bob Huggins had envisioned when he took Murray as a transfer from LaSalle with the added bonus being that two of his baskets were from 3-point range, a huge asset for someone standing 6-foot, 10-inches.
So here were the Mountaineers, on a break, the ball somehow in Murray’s hands as if he were 5-foot, 10-inches and a guard. He tried to make something happen, breaking every rule there ever was about fast-break basketball, passing the ball across the court.
Well, part way across the court for Steven Pledger cut in front, picked it off, went the other way for a dunk, changing the momentum.
After the game, Huggins could have spoken about the great play Murray had given him, but he is a perfectionist as a coach and somehow those are simply the player doing what he’s supposed to do … but to pass the ball cross court on a break?
“We cannot throw the ball to them,” Huggins would rant as he has all season. “We get it to four (actually six) and we make a crosscourt pass and get it intercepted. If they heard it once, they heard it a thousand times. You never throw the ball cross court, particularly in transition. You never heave it across the width of the floor.”
Yet that is just what Murray did and because of it he left a negative image in Huggins mind when there should have been a positive one, just as his teammates continue to do.
Yes, Eron Harris scored 23 points in the game, hit five 3s, played hard but there were also three turnovers on his line and who knows how many times he lost his man. Much of it was a case of freshmanitis, but still you can’t be doing those things if you are going to be something more than an exciting player.
You want to be a winning player.
Then there was Terry Henderson, another freshman, one who scored 21 in his previous game.
He wound up with three points, took just three shots in 20 minutes. Why? He lost his man on defense more times than that.
Defense? Do you want to hear Huggins on his team’s defense that allowed Oklahoma 83 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, 51.7 percent from 3-point range.
“We spent 20 minutes one day, 15 minutes the next on not letting their bigs drive to their right. We tell them they will have a harder time going left; they won’t be as able to pass the ball with their left hand,” Huggins said. “Know what? We let them drive right all day. It didn’t matter who we put in. It’s, ‘My bad! My bad!’ Who didn’t know that?”
How much did that hurt?
“If you think of this game, that’s what killed us, constant penetration into the lane. It’s like a highway to the basket ... and we work on it every single day,” Huggins said.
And there’s more.
“We have lost three games to Oklahoma because they have just absolutely kicked our behinds on the offensive glass, just kicked our behinds,” Huggins said. “The frustrating thing is we don’t block out.
“It doesn’t matter who you put in the game,” he continued. “When I put them in the game I say, ‘Are you going to block out?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, Coach.’ But they don’t block out. That’s not a hard skill.”
“We have to be the only team in the world who can’t guard a ball screen and can’t use one,” Huggins said.
“We said keep them off the foul line, They go there 27 times. Keep them off the foul line .. and we go six for 13.”
It is that bad, but the good news is the end is in sight. The Mountaineers close out the regular season at home on Saturday against Iowa State, Deniz Kilicli’s final home game as a Mountaineer, and then they go into the Big 12 Tournament.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.