The Times West Virginian

January 13, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Mountaineers still need to ripen before they win big games

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The turnaround was a quick one, from Saturday to Monday.

Normally, you’d say no sweat, these are college players and they’ll get their legs back, even if Bob Huggins had another three-hour battlerama of practice planned for Sunday.

But it wasn’t the legs you worried about on this West Virginia team.

It was the minds and the hearts after Oklahoma State had stolen a 73-72 victory on Saturday night in as tense and exciting a game as you will see this year.

True, guard Terry Henderson had contributed his best game ever as a Mountaineer, a 21-point effort with six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. And true, Juwan Staten turned in another spectacular performance with 20 points, following a 25-point outburst against TCU.

Staten’s game was good enough to have someone mention to Huggins that Staten may have proved himself to be among the Big 12’s best, playing step for step with the Cowboys’ Marcus Smart.

Unfortunately, he mentioned it in the shadow of defeat and Huggins wasn’t up much for personal victories.

“Who cares? We’re trying to win games,” Huggins answered. “I wish everybody else would follow suit sometimes. I told you … I told you and told you and told you, Staten has worked his tail off. He studies. He comes in to play. He doesn’t take practices off. I wish everybody else would do the same thing.”

On the surface it seems as though Huggins is being a bit too hard on his team. It has battled hard in games, coming up short far more than anyone would like.

Effort doesn’t seem to be the problem, not after seeing them come from behind against Wisconsin, against Missouri, against Marshall and not after seeing them nearly upset Oklahoma State in a game in which they were a half dozen points the underdog.

Huggins does note that his freshmen still are learning how to win at the college level and that while they feel they are giving all that they have, there is something left over or left out.      

It is almost something you can’t even put a finger on and, because of that, fixing it takes time, for it comes more with experience than anything else.

"Honestly, I think we have too many guys who play to the competition level instead of going and trying to play every play and playing every play as hard as you can play and concentrate as hard as you can concentrate on every play,” Huggins said.

You see this all too often in sports, teams that have to ripen like fruit on a tree before they can be picked to win.

It’s not only true in the college game, but also professionally. It was evident with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who slowly assembled pieces, saw them come together this past year to put together a winning season and reach the playoffs, but who still need to fill in the gaps and grow before they can become a championship club.

In college sports this is even more important, for you have players who are still learning how to play, let alone how to win. They come together from multiple backgrounds, have to first develop relationships with each other, build their own chemistry, then their confidence.

When that happens, it is almost like magic. You saw it with Bob Huggins’ Final Four team a few years back, the way Devin Ebanks and Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones merged — three kids from the same area yet worlds apart — to make a title run.

Huggins knows he has the same kind of ingredients with this West Virginia team. He also knows he can teach it to play basketball and that he can drive it into caring and having the necessary desire to want to win.

What he can’t do is move forward the hands of time and get them to the point that in the tight games they know how to make the right pass, can relax enough to hit the key shot or free throw, can be tough enough to grab the rebound that makes the difference between winning and losing.

“We care about each other as a team. All I can say is we are going to keep plugging at it and it will come together,” Staten said.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel