By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There isn’t a coach anywhere in the basketball world who doesn’t revere talent above all else in a player.
Oh, they may talk about the importance of heart and leadership and helping elderly women across the street, but nothing replaces a 40-inch vertical leap or an unerring jump shot from the corner with a hand in your face.
His vertical once was described by Bob Huggins as not being enough to jump over a phone book. He didn’t say whether he was talking about a Manhattan, Kansas, or a Manhattan, N.Y., phone book, but it hardly mattered.
Yet the West Virginia University coach openly admits that he loves the tall, rough-edged blond (what else?) from Minnesota.
Asked how much he loves Noreen as compared to say an ultra-talented player, Huggins thought for just the briefest of moments.
“Would I trade him for Kenyon?” he said, referring to his former Cincinnati star, Kenyon Martin, who probably would have led him to an NCAA championship had he not broken an ankle in the playoffs.
“Probably,” he said, with a knowing smile.
As he said it, though, you knew there was a “but” coming, for coaches — especially coaches like Huggins — have a special place in their hearts for players like Noreen.
“But he’s very competitive. He listens. He tries to do what you ask him to do. We have to get that to permeate to everyone else, which I think is starting to happen,” Huggins said.
Think about that for a moment.
Kevin Noreen’s style of play, his style of life, is starting to rub off on his more athletically talented teammates and that is probably what gave them the heart and the gumption to outlast Texas on the road in overtime in a game that possibly could be a turning point in the season.
When you watch Noreen play, there are no oooohs and aaaaahs. Smooth he isn’t. Graceful he isn’t.
Tough he is.
He’s the kind of guy whose bruises have bruises … and who gives out more than he receives.
Against Texas he got 13 rebounds, four of them off the offensive boards, and none was easy. They never are for he has to clear out an area for himself because he can’t outjump the inside players of other teams.
And what you see of him in a game, and will see in today’s 1:30 p.m. meeting with Kansas State, another bruising team that lives off the backboards, is what you would see if you could watch him in practice.
“He’s the same (in practice),” Deniz Kilicli said. “He’s all over the place all the time. He falls down, gets up, falls down again, gets up again. That’s how he is.”
His style is what makes him.
“He brings the great athletes down. He hits them,” Kilicli said. “He works so much harder than those athletic guys. He can’t out-jump people like they can, so he has to work that much harder to get the ball from them.
“I love playing with him. I love him off the court, too.”
That’s an interesting comment for Huggins isn’t sure when anyone gets time to know Noreen off the court.
He isn’t off the court very much.
“He wants to play. He loves to play,” Huggins said. “When he’s not in class, he’s in the practice facility. He’s a great team guy, a guy who really, sincerely loves West Virginia University and West Virginia and understands us, understands the people.”
This is important to Huggins because it is exactly as he was, a hardnosed player driven to be the best he could be.
Noreen is, in some ways, reminiscent of another former WVU player, Brent Solheim out of Minnesota, a physical inside player who liked it the tougher it got. Solheim might have had more athletic skill but essentially played the same kind of role.
And, like Noreen, he took to WVU and the people of West Virginia, the work ethic and the underdog spirit that drives the state and gives it the kind of pride essential to succeed.
Noreen came to WVU as one of the most accomplished small school players in Minnesota history.
Why someone who would grow to 6-10 and be capable of playing Division I basketball would play small high school ball in Minnesota would seem to be questionable, so it was put to Noreen as he readied for K-State.
“I was able to play varsity at a young age there, seventh grade. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay loyal to the coach who gave me the opportunity, and I got a chance to play with my brother, so that’s why I stayed.”
And now he has that same kind of loyalty to Huggins and to West Virginia and the teammates whom he is trying to help lead to a successful year after a shaky start.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.