The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

February 5, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Huggins deals with hand he’s been dealt

MORGANTOWN — It was Jimmy Breslin, one of the 20th century’s most gifted wordsmiths, who created “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

A half a century later, Bob Huggins is in the process of perfecting it.

Breslin’s novel was fiction based on real life.

It appears that Huggins’ version is real life based on Breslin’s fiction.

Let us be honest as Huggins’ West Virginia University Mountaineers ready themselves to take the floor in Philadelphia against Villanova today.

He did not plan on building his team this way. Given his preference, Devin Ebanks would be in Philly today, not off in the NBA. Noah Cottrill would be coming off the bench at the guard position. Danny Jennings would be helping at center and Casey Mitchell would be — and might be — at guard.

But Huggins is smart enough to know you play the hand you’re dealt, and if he sometimes feels like he is being dealt off the bottom of the deck, so be it.

He just pushes on.

He understands what he has and, just as importantly, he understands what he doesn’t have and has still edged into the Top 25 and into a tie for second place in the Big East.

“We don’t have guys who can dribble the ball and make plays. We have to rely on being able to screen, being able to cut, being able to pass and make shots. When we do that, we’re pretty good,” he said.

That was seen in the first half of the last victory at home against Seton Hall.

What happens when the Mountaineers don’t do that was seen in the second half against Seton Hall, when they almost squandered away their big lead.

It’s almost as though this team can’t stand success.

“We seemingly, when things get going too good, we gotta screw it up,” Huggins said. “We gotta get back to being us, I guess. I don’t know.”

If moving, cutting, screening make them look good for half a game, the next half they try to drive to the hoop, to bomb from the outside, to pass around the arc without setting screens. It’s one guy; it’s the next guy.

And then there’s Deniz Kilicli, the 6-9 Turkish import who has so much talent just waiting to be unleashed.

“Deniz may be the poster child for our team having success and then trying to do everything you can’t do,” Huggins said, jokingly … or not. “When Deniz does what he can do, he’s very good. When he tries to get out of his element, he’s not very good.”

You see it over and over during the course of the game, magnificent hook shots, stunning jump shots, then ragged dribbling, bad passes. It comes, it goes, and he is certainly not alone.

“I don’t know, we have at times this uncontrollable urge to show everyone everything we can’t do,” Huggins said. “I’ve told them that everyone knows that. Everyone knows that. They watch film, too. I’ve seen it too much, too. I’m sick of it.”

But all of this has led to another side of the Mountaineers. It is the defensive side, the hustle side.

They may not lead the Big East in shooting percentage but they are runaway leaders in floor burns and bruises.

“Hustle, that was another area,” Huggins said. “We went through and charted all the loose balls we didn’t get to early in the year. We showed them. A lot of it is being in position and being ready to play. You’re not going to get to a lot of loose balls when you stand around.

“I think we understand, we’ve got eight guys. We have to make hustle plays. We have to try to play harder than anyone else does. To be honest, my teams normally play harder than other teams.”

Certainly, this group led by Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman in the floor burn department, has transferred this determined play to the defense, which is just getting better and better, giving up only 200 points in the last four games.

That’s 50 points a game.

“We guard pretty good,” Huggins said. “We’ve made a lot of progress defensively. We’ve made a lot of progress rebounding the basketball. Those are the two areas where we’ve made a lot of progress.

“We’re only going to be so good offensively because we don’t shoot it straight. A lot of days we can’t make a play off the bounce, so we have to do those things,” Huggins concluded.

The result has been a surge in the standings and an increase in confidence, enough so that someone would ask Huggins after the victory over Seton Hall if all this might not go to his team’s head.

“How do you do that when you can’t make a shot?” Huggins asked, sarcastically.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at

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