By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There were no bands waiting to welcome West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team when it came back to town on Friday from Pittsburgh, no waiting fans waving banners, no cheerleaders.
It wasn’t anything like it was supposed to be, but that’s the way it goes when you lose in your first game of the NCAA Tournament, especially when you lose it 77-54 to Gonzaga with an embarrassingly inept performance.
It hurt everyone connected with the team, but no one more than the team’s best player, Kevin Jones, who played his final game as a Mountaineer.
“You want to finish without embarrassing yourself and your university,” he said. “We just didn’t make the right decisions, and we got out-toughed, which is something that very rarely happens here.”
It was sad to watch if you weren’t rooting for Gonzaga, a team that played a determined yet smoothly effective game.
It was sadder to play in.
“I never really thought it was an insurmountable lead until around the four-minute mark when I told my teammates, ‘Just play as hard as you can. Just play until the clock goes on zero,’” he said.
They played out the string, but by then were nothing more than the Washington Generals to Gonzaga’s Harlem Globetrotters.
“We played to the end, but we just didn’t play well. It’s frustrating, because we wanted to win the national championship, but you just have to move to the next phase of your career.”
It is strange to think of Jones moving on, but that is the way it is in the college game. You are there for four or five years, then you exit quietly and return only for homecoming.
It seemed like just yesterday that Jones arrived on campus, a promising kid out of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who knew what he wanted and knew how to get it.
“It was great. I was kind of prepped early for college. In high school, we had study halls and training table. To actually go through the experience of meeting new people, being lost trying to find your classes the first week … it’s all been a great experience, and it’s something that I’ll always remember the rest of my life.”
And he will not be forgotten, the good times and the great games. He is one of those who always gave the university value for the scholarship he was awarded, even going so far as to decide a year ago to return to school after testing the NBA waters.
“It was definitely worth the stay,” he said. “I just learned a lot. I matured as a man on and off the court. Coach (Bob) Huggins taught me a lot, the coaching staff. I just benefited a whole bunch from coming back this year. Hopefully, it’s stuff I can take with me to the next level, whatever level that may be. I’m very grateful for that.”
It will be different without him. He knows it and Huggins knows it, having suffered through a season that finished up at 19-14.
“I very rarely mention it because I don’t want to give anybody excuses,” Huggins said after the game, “but we lost a 6-9” guy (Kevin Noreen) who was our really third big, then we lost a 6-11 guy (Pat Forsythe) who was our fourth big. We were short on the frontline.
“The easiest way to make guys do what they’re supposed to do is sit them on the bench. They figure out, I better do what I’m supposed to do or I’m not getting back in the game. We couldn’t do that. We didn’t have enough guys to do that. Going in, we had five bigs. We thought that was enough. You get guys hurt, there’s nothing you can do about that.”
Huggins couldn’t play the style of ball he wanted to play, not without the inside depth.
“We’re a whole lot different team. We lost 8 of our last 12. When we started losing games is when Kevin Noreen went down. Kevin’s not a great athlete, but he knows what he’s doing and he screens and he rebounds and he guards, and he passes the ball. We were so much better offensively when he was in the game. He knew how to play. Nothing you can do about that,” Huggins said.
Next year, though, they will be back along with another big, LaSalle transfer Aaric Murray, a defensive stud joining a team Huggins called his “worst” defensive team in 30 years of coaching.
“They have a lot of guys back next year,” Truck Bryant said. “They have a presence inside with Deniz (Kilicli) and Aaric Murray and Sweat (Noreen) back. You never know; it just may be a different style of play.”
It will have to be a different style for there is only one Kevin Jones, who knew it was time to say goodbye. Asked what emotions he had, he answered:
“Just that this is it. I couldn’t imagine sharing my career with a great teammate like Truck, great friend, a coach like Coach Huggins, who has taught me a lot the last four years. It was kind of a sad and emotional moment.
“I know I’ve got another career ahead of me. I’ve just got to think about that right now. But I’ll never forget the memories here, like I said.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.