The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

January 28, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Huggins coaches up WVU men

CINCINNATI — Bob Huggins well may be the best basketball coach never to have won a national championship.

Oddly, he proved this in defeat.

No one denies the likes of John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Jim Boeheim, Adolph Rupp or John Thompson Jr. their place among the college game’s greatest coaches. They have the hardware to prove it.

Huggins does not, having twice been among the final four left standing in the NCAA Tournament, but never having gotten there.

Could he have back at Cincinnati, where he returns Saturday night to coach against his former Bearcat team, when Kenyon Martin was injured prior to the tournament.

He believes he could have won it all that year and I don’t know the man alive who is going to argue with him about it.

But sometimes the measure of greatness isn’t found in the resume. Instead, it is a beauty found in the eyes of the beholder.

It was the Houston Oilers coach of another era, Bum Phillips, speaking about Don Shula, whose description of him set the true standard for coaching when he said:

“He can take his’n and beat you’n and he can take you’n and beat his’n.”

The point was that it didn’t matter about the personnel, he could find a way to win a game.

Which brings us back to Huggins and his ability to do just what Phillips said he could do.

Huggins came into West Virginia and inherited a team of John Beilein recruits, which on the surface were anything but his kind of players. Beilein’s was a finesse game, as much chess as basketball.

Oh, he had had talented players and he reached the Elite Eight and came within a whisker of making it to the Final Four. But he did it in ways foreign to the style that Bob Huggins would preach.

Yet Huggins came in and took Beilein’s holdovers and built a winner, merging some of his own recruits with Beilein’s and taking those players and re-creating them in his own image. They became tough guys with finesse, the likes of Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman, Wellington Smith and John Flowers and, most of all, Da’Sean Butler, did.

He changed his own system of playing to fit what he had on hand. Each game plan as the season wore on was a mini-novel, constructed with the hand of an artist and the mind of a genius, right up until Duke just shot it out of existence.

This season, though, was from the beginning a disaster. His freshman class melted like an ice cream cone left out in the summer sun. There were injuries and suspensions and things that just didn’t work the way they had been laid out.

Still, as West Virginia took the floor against Louisville at its beautiful new home arena, the Mountaineers were just so much chopped liver, one of their centers having walked out on his teammates in mid-game with nothing more than a note on a whiteboard in the locker room to say goodbye and their top scorer, Casey Mitchell, was sitting out a suspension.

Eight weary warriors were all Huggins had to go against Louisville, the second highest scoring team in the Big East.

What’s more, nearly everything that could go wrong in the game went wrong. If he was going to be able to compete, one would believe, he had to have Kevin Jones scoring, Deniz Kilicli scoring, John Flowers scoring and Truck Bryant coming out of a shooting slump that was reaching unmatched proportions.

None of that happened.

 Jones, a sharpshooter, hit 3 of 13 shots. Kilicli, the big Turk who came on to be an inside force, not only didn’t hit a shot, he didn’t take one. Flowers could do no better than 2 for 8 and missed all four of his 3s, many with open looks.

And Bryant went 1 of 8, making him 16 for last 69.

Did we mention four straight missed throws down the stretch?

You hear all that, toss in that WVU made only four baskets in the second half while going more than 13 minutes without one, and you figure Louisville won by about 30 points.

The Cardinals might have, too, except for the fact that Huggins orchestrated the game magnificently.

He got a miracle first half out of Joe Mazzulla while Louisville was concentrating on stopping players who were intent on stopping themselves. He slowed play down as best as he could so Louisville could not play at its pace. He kept the fouls to a minimum.

He used only seven players, those whom he felt could handle Louisville’s pressure, changed up his defenses and took the Cardinals’ top scorer, Preston Knowles out of the game with a 3 for 16 shooting night, 3 of 12 from 3-point range.

He coached West Virginia into position to win, where a free throw here or there would have made a difference, where one of the six or seven up close shots Jones missed or one of Flowers’ open 3s would have turned the game and maybe turned it into a WVU runaway.

Even with all the shortcomings, it still took a miracle, acrobatic scoop shot by Louisville’s smallest starter between Jones and Flowers to win the game.

If Huggins coached better than he did on Wednesday night in Louisville, the film ought to just be shipped directly to Springfield, Mass., and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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