The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 19, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU unique, and not in good way

MORGANTOWN — There were four minutes and 42 seconds left in the first half of what was a tight, tense battle between West Virginia University and Cleveland State, an unbeaten team ranked atop the mid-majors in America. The Mountaineers were in trouble, down 28-25, but they ran a play that was supposed to end up with a Dalton Pepper layup.

As Pepper broke toward the basket, one of Cleveland State’s two bigs — and we do not use the term bigs lightly — approached and Pepper knew he would have to arch the ball, but he somehow managed to overreact to the situation as perhaps no one before him ever has.

The basketball left his hand — remember, this was a layup — and cleared the backboard, hitting the shot clock.

Honest.

Jay Jacobs, the radio color commentator, would later say that if he had the call at that moment he would have said, “There’s a layup … heading for Star City.”

It was, to be honest, the perfect representation of what this WVU team has become, a team that wins but does it quite often in spite of itself.

That, by the way, is the opinion of someone quite wise in the ways of this game Dr. James Naismith invented a hundred and some years ago, the coach of this team, Bob Huggins.

Huggins recalled the play, as if anyone could forget it, and remembers turning to his assistants on the bench and saying, “People who don’t come and watch this bunch play really miss a lot.”

He was shaking his head in bewilderment as he said that, having already summoned Casey Mitchell to enter the game.

“This is like 29 years of coaching or something like that, but I grew up in a gym. My dad was a coach. I didn’t even see that in Biddy Ball and they’re bad. They’re third- and fourth-graders and, no, I’ve never seen that,” Huggins said when asked.

“Honestly, this group does something all the time that you’ve never seen before. You miss a lot. If you don’t come watch, you miss a lot.”

On this day, even though the students are out of town, 11,235 showed up, lured by Family Day tickets that included hot dogs and soda and popped corn and as much original basketball as West Virginia’s totally unique group could conjure up.

“Every day is a new day with this group. You look and you just go, ‘Wow!’ This is a very unique group,” Huggins said.

Take the team’s latest injury. Danny Jennings never got off the bench, Huggins saying “he says he has groin injury.”

The “he says” gives you the idea that Huggins isn’t buying that, but against Duquesne he played only three minutes and in this game never shed his warm-ups, even though he did go through pre-game drills seemingly free of injury.

Even the guys who are playing aren’t.

Take Truck Bryant, the starting point guard. It’s hard to know where to begin with him. Maybe it was when he was suspended for the VMI game in Charleston along with — who? — oh, yeah, Jennings. Well, during that game the suspension was hurting those two so much they sat down at the end of the bench, not in uniform, laughing and having a good ol’ time.

Bryant started at point guard in this game but was quickly gone, having more troubles early than did the shot clock and scoreboard, which was working about as accurate as Pepper’s layup until repaired.

Bryant first ran into a pick by 6-9, 275-pound Eric Pogue, that left him flattened on the Coliseum floor. Moments later he committed an ugly turnover that had Huggins scrambling to get Joe Mazzulla into the game.

From that point until 6:40 was left, if the scoreboard clock could be believed, Bryant was on the bench, not down with his teammates, but sitting between the coaches where they were hoping at least some wisdom would rub off.

Doubtful, for 24 seconds after being returned to the game, Bryant threw up an ugly, ill-advised three that had Huggins sending Jonnie West to the scorer’s table before the ball could be rebounded.

Honestly, all of this went on in the first half of the game, a game that WVU somehow wrest the lead at 36-32 at halftime.

For much of the game, Huggins didn’t mess around much with the knuckleheads, turning the game over to his new stars, if you translate that word loosely, in Cam Thoroughman, Jonnie West and John Flowers.

Thoroughman took over the game on the floor, playing intelligent, flawless basketball as he had seven assists without a turnover, including a spectacular alley-oop to Jonnie West, grabbing six rebounds, making two steals and scoring nine points.

West came off the bench to score five key points and Flowers managed to put together his second double-double in the last three games, scoring 10, grabbing 11 rebounds and adding three blocked shots, one that reverberated throughout the Coliseum.

Now, with an 8-2 record, WVU takes some time off, save for an exhibition against Walsh College on Wednesday, which means that only Huggins will be able to enjoy the whacky workings of his team in practice.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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