The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 16, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Mountaineers showing their heart with play

MORGANTOWN — This may sound insane, seeing as West Virginia University owns no better than a 7-4 record and has yet to get into conference play, where matters really can get messy, but the Mountaineers of 2013-14 are reminding you of the Final Four team of 2009-10 in the heart with which they play.

We talk neither about talent nor experience in making this statement, for this season’s edition is nowhere close in either department.

The 2010 team was built of a special fiber. Armed with three NBA players from a school that had produced but one in the previous nearly 30 years, it could match anyone in the country in talent.

Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones were NBA-bound, and with the likes of Joe Mazzulla, Truck Bryant, Wellington Smith, John Flowers, Jonnie West, Casey Mitchell and Cam Thoroughman complementing, it was truly a strong team that could do a lot of things.

What made the team extra special, however, was a will to win, an ability to find a way to escape … not always, for no one goes unbeaten these days, but enough so that they became a team to fear down the stretch.

Well, take a look at what you have here in West Virginia today.

Earlier in this season there were many lessons for this young team to learn, one driven painfully home early when the Mountaineers squandered away a big lead to on the road at Virginia Tech, giving them evidence that sometimes it’s harder to win when you are far in front that it is when you are far behind.

Then there were a pair of games against talented, nationally ranked teams, Wisconsin and Missouri, in which they fell hopelessly behind, only to dig down deep, correct what was wrong technically while avoiding quitting to come back and give themselves a chance to win in the closing minutes.

I had avoided until now putting much emphasis on this because basketball lends itself to teams rallying from far back as the leading team often stops being as aggressive as it had been and plays the clock rather than the opponent.

Others, though, saw WVU’s comebacks as substantial steps forward.

“Last year’s team would have lost those games by 35 points,” Kevin Noreen, a veteran who serves often as spokesperson for the team, noted, a statement with which coach Bob Huggins has concurred over and over.

But moral victories are, in the end, defeats and don’t go into the standings. You don’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament by erasing large deficits only to lose.

Then, along came Saturday night’s come-from-behind victory over Marshall.

Let us understand, WVU was never more than 7 points behind. In basketball, that’s simply three possessions.

But West Virginia was playing so horribly that it seemed like it was down 70 points, yet the Mountaineers stuck to it, kept after the golden ring and, eventually, let heart win out over art.

“I think – I hope, anyway – it shows the kind of substance these guys have. They don’t quit, and they know how bad they were,” Huggins said.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that last year’s team lacked this quality … interesting because it was made up of many of the same elements.

Huggins was still the coach, just as fiery, just as tough, yet he could not get it through to that team.

The players, too, were there – Juwan Staten, Eron Harris, Gary Browne, Noreen and Terry Henderson.

But they weren’t the leaders, and the emotional and moral makeup of a team comes from its leadership, perhaps the most difficult aspect of a team to identify but perhaps the most important.

This season’s team has a way about it – not a swagger, which some successful teams have.

Instead, it is a team that gives every indication of liking itself, of having players who are not only teammates but friends, a team that can have differences but not let them fester under the scenes.

This was evidenced two games ago when Harris, upset that he didn’t get the ball enough in the second half after scoring 18 first-half points against Gonzaga, went public with his complaint.

Who knows what direction the team might have gone had he not opened up, let his teammates know that there was something bothering him, let Huggins know the same thing, allowing him to address it.

What does all this mean?

If they can get the ball into the basket, it might mean that they’ll win the games they should win the rest of the way and maybe pull off an upset or two along the way, find a way to get to 20 victories and qualify for post-season play.

It won’t be easy, but they have enough chemistry among themselves to pull it off in a comeback season.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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