By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It’s over, mercifully, and to understand it you have to look at West Virginia University’s season past through 3-D glasses – determination, defense and defeat.
The first two Ds the Mountaineers lacked; the last one they had in excess.
In all they had 16 defeats, too many to involve themselves the fourth D, which is college basketball’s Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.
Seventeen wins are not enough to satisfy players, coaches or fans, not even coming off a 13-win season, not even with the excuse of having a young team, of having a team without a senior and without two players counted upon entering the year who were not eligible.
Blame those who failed to get eligible, yes, but blame, too, those who rely upon the unreliable.
See, this is not a one-year thing, not a two-year thing.
West Virginia’s record over the past three years is 49-49.
That comes on the heels of three previous seasons that were 75-31 and included a run to the Final Four.
Part of it goes back to those two players, Jonathon Holton and Elijah Macon, who were not eligible this year, but they are only part of an overall picture that shows players coming and going far too frequently.
Think of what has come through Morgantown over the past three years – Jabarie Hinds, Aaron Brown, Aric Dickerson, Aaric Murray, Volodymyr Gerun, Keaton Miles, Pat Forsythe, Tommie McCune, Danny Jennings, Dalton Pepper.
That’s a lot of players who didn’t make it for any variety of reasons.
It left Bob Huggins with a team of players he really liked as people but who, over the past two years, he couldn’t reach.
It begins, certainly, with determination, which is attitude, which is something Huggins has never had a problem with in the past.
“I guess it’s like anything else. It’s like a girlfriend. If you don’t pay attention to her, she’s not going to be around very long. She’s probably going to treat you bad. That’s (like) basketball,” Huggins said after being eliminated in the NIT, 77-65, by Georgetown.
A girlfriend, you see, needs attention and even more so needs respect. So does basketball.
“If you don’t treat the game with respect, if you don’t put time into it, if you don’t really care about it, it’s not going to treat you very good. We’ve got to fall in love with basketball,” Huggins continued.
And, if you love it, if you pay attention, if you respect it, you must go even further.
You can’t cheat on it.
“What’s so great about this game is you can’t cheat it,” Huggins said, a theme that he has carried throughout the season. “If you don’t put the time and the effort in — if you don’t really take it to heart — it’s not going to be good to you.”
And to Huggins it doesn’t start in the gym, even though in the final analysis that is where he has been directing them to go to work on faulty shooting.
“It starts in weight room,” Huggins said. “I believe that because you can’t make gains without pain. You have to push yourself through things.”
And when talking about what must change by next year, the first thing that came to mind was his team’s strength, which makes you wonder about the future of the strength staff.
“We get knocked off the ball. We don’t have physical strength,” Huggins said.
And this gets back to determination.
“We’re not mentally tough as we need to be because somehow, some way we lost that commitment to being special,” Huggins said.
All season long Huggins has brought messages to his team through a series of personal anecdotes such as being picked up by a truck driver without a rearview mirror because in life it is best to look ahead, not behind.
Well, Huggins had another one to present to his team about what he was seeking.
“My Dad wouldn’t let me go to a barber,” he began. “I asked him, ‘Why can’t I go to the barber and be like everyone else?’ He said, ‘Because I don’t want you to be like everyone else. I want you to be special. You can’t be great and be like everybody else. You have to be different. You have to be special.’”
This is what he wants his team to become.
“It’s about a commitment to excellence. That’s what it is,” he said, recalling one of his players at Cincinnati who couldn’t quite figure out what Huggins was trying to bring out of him.
“He came and said, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ He wanted to transfer. A few days later he came to me and said, ‘I went back. I sat in my room, looked in the mirror and realized it wasn’t you. It was me.’ He made a commitment to being great and wound up being great,” Huggins said, noting the following year he wound up as runner-up for national Player of the Year.
Determination, a commitment to excellence.
“We have to increase our size, our athleticism, hopefully our skill level,” Huggins said.
The determination and the increase in size, strength and athleticism are aimed at addressing the second D, which defense, or more importantly a lack of it.
True, the rules changed this season in basketball to add scoring to the game and it worked, for WVU scored 11 more points per game than last year but gave up 5 more and, if you go back to the Final Four season, it gave up 10 more points per game at 73.4.
“We haven’t guarded all year,” Huggins said. “If we can’t outscore you, we’re not going to win, which is a terrible way to be. It’s been a year-long thing. We’ve done it all year.”
In the last 10 games of the season, which produced only three victories, his team gave up 80 or more points five times and 77 or more seven times.
Georgetown had 77 with one player, D’Vaunte Smith-Rivera scoring 32 points. Two games earlier Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins scored 41 on the Mountaineers.
“It basically boils down to the same thing, and that’s defense,” star point guard Juwan Staten, and All-Big 12 defender, said. “I really can’t say much more about that. It’s something we’ve done a poor job with all year and something that ultimately came back to bite us in the end.”
“When they’re coming down and you’re not getting stops and the team is scoring and gets on a run, especially when you’re playing away and when their crowd gets into the game, you get a little tight, and that puts a little more emphasis on every shot, every move, and everything gets more magnified,” Staten said. “It kind of makes the little things difficult. When we struggle to guard, most of the time we struggle to get baskets, too.”
Guard Terry Henderson, who game back from illness that robbed him of four games down the stretch, understands how hard it is to win when you can’t play defense.
“We were lazy on defense. We were not playing team defense,” he said.
And that erased any good that came from the year and wound up in defeat.
Staten’s performance throughout the season was magnificent, save for a pair Texas-sized disasters against the Longhorns.
Against Georgetown, Staten recorded his 31st double-figure scoring game, moving him into a tie with Kevin Jones (2010) and Frank Young (2007) for fourth-best in school history. Staten’s seven assists gave him 193 for the season, four shy of Ron “Fritz” Williams’ single-season school record of 197 assists, set in 1967.
Staten, a junior, finished with an average of 18.1 points, 5.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Staten will submit papers to the NBA to get an evaluation of his chances of being drafted should he choose to leave without playing his senior year.
For much of the season he had a high-scoring partner at guard in Eron Harris, who rained 3s on opponents from anywhere inside half court. But Harris simple wore down, Huggins saying his weight dropped from about 195 at season’s start to 180, and lost confidence in his shot.
It became completely apparent on the road and only a late 3 in the Georgetown game allowed him to reach double figures at 10 points. His final four games had him scoring 5, 28, 3 and 10, the 28 coming in the season highlight upset of Kansas.
He still finished averaging 17 points a game and with great promise for next season, but rest assured Huggins will push him to get stronger and better on defense.
Along with Harris, Remi Dibo is going to have to emphasize defense in his off-season work while seeking consistency as a 3-point shooter, having ended the year with a rather unlucky 0-for-7 from 3 performance against Georgetown.
Beyond that, Huggins, when he adds his two ineligible players and his recruits, which include size, figures to make freshman Devin Williams into a forward after having been forced to use him as a center this year.
While he was inconsistent, as you would expect a freshman to be, he showed promise of being a prime rebounder and a scorer who can hit from 15 feet if he is playing facing the basket.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.