By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If Bob Huggins appreciates anything in his players, it is toughness.
It was what he brought to the game as a player back in an era where if you hurt yourself, the trainer would tell you “to walk it off.”
And, if you could walk it off, you could play.
That’s how it was then and Huggins sees no reason why it should be much different today, even if this is an era where athletes are babied and coddled, starting at the top where agents do all they can to protect their meal tickets and where owners do the same to protect their investments.
But, in the end, Huggins believes the most important characteristic in building a champion, be it an individual or a team, is toughness … mental toughness and physical toughness,
That is why Sunday afternoon’s 82-45 victory over William & Mary may be a watershed moment in the development of what Huggins has been trying to build at West Virginia ever since Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones left.
This was the day they got tough.
“We’re a tough team,” point guard Juwan Staten said. “We follow our coach and we definitely have a tough coach. They prepare us well. We lift. We do everything it takes to be tough and tough-minded as well. Injuries are going to come. That’s just something we have to get through.”
And get through it they did.
“We want to build a reputation here of being — I can’t really say it on camera — but just going hard every single day. If you are injured and can’t play, that’s one thing. But if you can fight through it, you have to do that for your teammates,” Staten said.
They probably should have brought his team to the Civic Center in an ambulance rather than a team bus, such was its condition.
Freshman Devin Williams could barely move, his back so sore after an eight hour Greyhound ride, according to Huggins, back to school.
“It’s hard to squeeze into those seats, especially if you’re 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds,” Huggins said. “I know what it’s like to have a back like that and have to grab the bedpost just to get out of bed in the morning.”
The back was bad enough that he didn’t start, but by the time the game had ended, he gutted out nine minutes and grabbed of six rebounds while scoring four points.
Then there was another freshman, Brandon Watkins, inserted into the starting lineup for the first time, even though he spent his post-Christmas time singing “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”
It seems in practice, reserve Rich Romero had knocked out his two front teeth.
“He went to the dental school and they did what they had to do,” Huggins said. “I give him a lot of credit. He came back and finished practice. No a lot of guys would have come back and finished practice.”
But it was a third freshman who stole the day with his toughness, that being Nathan Adrian, the former Morgantown High star who has just been having an awful go of it in his freshman season.
To start with, he can’t remember the last time he took a step without pain, having sprained his ankles three or four times already this season.
“Nothing new about that,” he said before Christmas break. “I sprain them all the time. In a day or two, I’m all right.”
What hurt him far more than his ankles was his shooting stroke. If he brought anything to WVU it was supposed to have been a smooth 3-point stroke and he showed it off early in the season, but something went wrong and he was shooting 3s with about the same accuracy that most of us show with our drivers on the golf course.
He had lost his starting spot last game and wouldn’t have started today had not Williams had the bad back, but it was more of the same in the first half.
At halftime he had two points and a broken nose.
Honest. He got involved in a scrum and came out with blood pouring out of his snout, that forced him to the locker room for emergency repairs.
It was assumed at the time that he was through for the day, or that if he did return it would wearing a face mask to protect his fractured proboscis.
When the second half started, Adrian was in the starting lineup, not wearing a mask and not backing down a step, battling for loose balls and, amazingly, he suddenly was in complete control of his 3-point shot.
For whatever reason, Adrian began draining 3s one after another, hitting four of them in the second half to finish with a career-high 16 points, displaying courage, toughness and the kind of accuracy that makes you wonder if maybe he hasn’t finally arrived as a collegiate player.
“(Breaking his nose) definitely sent a shock through his body. He played as good as I’ve seen him play. He’s definitely tough and I’m proud of him,” Staten said.
“Nat can be good,” Huggins said for what, the 100th time this season?
Adrian is a unique player whom Huggins brought to West Virginia to fill a certain role, a big man who can shoot 3s and who figures to become big and strong enough to hit the boards hard, too.
Now, with Watkins coming on and Williams having proven himself a player, the Mountaineers seem to be on edge as they head into conference play, the toughness, perhaps, being just what they need to begin winning some of the close games they lost in non-conference play.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel