By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins learned early on that Kansas Coach Bill Self was a leader who would make something big of himself, long before he had himself a national championship on his resume and was considered among the best coaches in the land.
It was a lesson Huggins learned the hard way, and one he keeps being reminded of every time the two cross paths.
Self led his Jayhawks into the Coliseum on Monday night to display the nation’s No. 1/2 team that was about to make a mockery of the Mountaineers, 61-56, for their 18th consecutive victory, the nation’s longest streak.
The triumph marked the fifth consecutive time Self had taken Huggins’ scalp at three different schools, beating the third winningest active coach while he was at Cincinnati, Kansas State and now at his alma mater, WVU.
Considering how dismal a season this one has become for Huggins’ Mountaineers, now 9-11 and losers of four in a row and five of six, the latest game between the two is of far less interest than was the first, for it came at a time when Huggins actually thought he had a shot at taking down a national title.
Self was a young coach then, one who had begun his career at Oral Roberts and won but 55 of 109 games before moving on to Tulsa, where he was in the process of building a winner and a reputation.
Huggins was at Cincinnati and had an overpowering team that rolled over nearly everything in its way, right up until its best player, Kenyon Martin, suffered a broken leg on March 9, 2000.
At the time, Huggins was under some fire in Cincinnati, for he had lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament three consecutive times, the second of which came about in 1998 when Jarrod West made his miracle shot at the buzzer to beat Huggins and his Bearcats.
With Martin out, the NCAA seeding committee dropped UC to a No. 2 seed, something Huggins protested vehemently about, claiming the committee showed his team “a lack of respect,” but in the end the move proved justified as Self’s Tulsa team, a No. 7 seed, eliminated the Martin-less Bearcats, 69-61, in Nashville.
Could Self and Tulsa have beaten Cincinnati with Martin there? Huggins would never admit so and could point to his team shooting just 35 percent from the field with 19 of 54 baskets made, but also being outrebounded, 44-39, without the muscular, athletic All-American.
“We obviously had to change a lot of things without Kenyon, but I thought we could advance,” Huggins said. “Give Tulsa a lot of credit. That’s a very balanced, well-coached team.”
Little did Huggins know that midway through the 2013 season he still would be trying to figure out a way to beat Self.
So it was that earlier in the day, before the game would be played before a large crowd at the Coliseum welcoming Kansas for the first time ever, someone asked Huggins about Self as a coach.
“Obviously, he does a great job,” he said.
And the reason?
In part, Huggins would note, because there are some similarities between the way Self runs his Kansas team and the way Huggins has built his coaching career that includes 719 victories.
“He’s kind of like, when I was younger, they called me an old-school guy. I say that’s a compliment. He does things the right way. They are fundamentally sound. They play the game the right way,” Huggins said.
You watch Kansas play and you see a lot of the kind of things that Huggins does, things Huggins got from his father, a legendary high school basketball coach.
It isn’t fancy. It isn’t inventive.
Kansas plays defense the way Huggins would like to see his Mountaineers play defense. They are hardnosed and aggressive. They hit the boards as if every rebound is their property unless you can take it away from them.
On offense they run the kind of motion that Huggins loves to run, moving the ball, moving the defense until they get a clean shot at the basket.
Certainly, the Jayhawks were prohibitive favorites and never could have expected the Mountaineers to make a game of it when they opened a 15-point lead 14 minutes into the game, but Huggins had learned some things in his previous meetings with Self.
He pulled them all out in the closing minutes of the first half and into the second half, much of it riding on the talents of Aaric Murray, who became the second coming of Kevin Pittsnogle with his 3-point shooting.
West Virginia got it down to 2 before the Jayhawks used their superior talent to put it away down the stretch.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.