By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The most difficult lessons for Bob Huggins' basketball players are not found in the college classrooms but, instead, in the gymnasium.
They don’t come in the forms of jump shots or rebounds. They aren’t in zone defenses or back door cuts.
No, they are in learning what it takes to be a winner.
That, to date, is what has held back this year’s team, a team that has talented players, players who Huggins sees closing in on the ultimate goal but not there yet, as evidenced Saturday when they almost upset No. 11 Oklahoma State on the road but committed too many secondary blunders to allow them to steal the victory.
“Our problem is we have a whole bunch of freshmen who don’t understand how hard you have to play for how long at this level,” Huggins said in the aftermath of the defeat, his team’s 9th in 20 games. “When you stop playing hard, people take advantage of you. When you take plays off, people take advantage of you, but I’ve said that for how long?
“I guess the positive is I had the same problem, the same discussion with Da’Sean Butler. I had the same problem, the same discussion with Wellington Smith. When they were seniors, I didn’t have that problem anymore.”
Not at all. That group went to the Final Four before losing to Duke in the national semifinal.
At one point it came down to a rebound at the end of Saturday’s Oklahoma State game.
“I mean, we’re standing on the foul line and all we have to do is block that guy out, and we didn’t even think about blocking him out. He just happens to be a first-team All-American and we didn’t even think about blocking him out. I don’t know how you do that,” Huggins said.
Point guard Juwan Staten, a junior, is the veteran leader of this team and understands that it is suffering growing pains as it learns life’s lessons through a season where it is relying on himself, a pair of second-year players in inconsistent sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, and newcomers like freshmen Nathan Adrian and Devin Williams, along with holdovers like Gary Browne and Kevin Noreen, and newcomers Remi Dibo and Brandon Watkins.
“Finishing games has definitely been our Achilles heel this year,” Staten said. “It got a little rough when we started getting players fouled out, because we had to call on players we don’t normally put in those situations.
“It’s all part of the growing process. It has to start clicking at some point, maybe with experience. Maybe it’s going to take tough games like this for it to click.”
Huggins sees it as his Mountaineers falling into the flow of the game too easily rather than going out and dictating it.
“We have too many guys who play to the competition level instead of going and playing every play as hard as you can play and as well as you can play and concentrate as hard as you can concentrate on every play. We try to win, man. The two greatest emotions in the world — winning and losing,” Huggins said.
And Huggins’ history is that he doesn’t take kindly to the losing emotion.
However, he had to enjoy the effort his team put forth for the second time this year against Oklahoma State.
“It’s a great team. They have great players,” Staten said after Nate Adrian missed a shot at the end that could have forced overtime or won the game. “We came in here, got down and didn’t hang our heads and kept fighting. That’s all you can ask for. Nate’s a freshman. Yeah, he’s played a lot of minutes, but this is the first time he’s been put in this situation … playing a team like this on the road.
“He made big shots. He’ll continue to make big shots. This just happened to be one he missed. We’re not going to place the blame on anybody.
“As a team we gave up a lot of baskets we shouldn’t have given up. We didn’t capitalize on a lot of shots and free throws we should have capitalized on, and that’s what leads to a loss.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.