The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 17, 2010

Huggins welcomes challenges ahead

MORGANTOWN — There are some coaches who would prefer flying under the radar as they enter a season, wearing neither a target or a big S on their chest.

Do not count Bob Huggins among them.

Huggins likes the idea that he’s coming off a Final Four appearance and will be targeted by a lot of opponents in this basketball season, accepting the challenge that it presents.

“I like to be good,” he said just before going through Mountaineer Madness to mark the start of his fourth season as West Virginia University’s basketball coach. “I like to walk out there at half court and look at their guys and say ‘We ought to win. We have better guys.’ I’ve always felt that way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

See, if you are going to be any good, you have to handle pressure, and pressure comes with high expectations. To carry that a step further, the only reason you have high expectations is because you are good.

It is nothing new for Huggins, who built a powerhouse of a program at Cincinnati that did everything but win an NCAA championship. And he seems now on the brink of repeating that success at WVU, his team mirroring his early teams at Cincinnati.

“The last time I was in the Final Four we got beat by Carolina, who won the national championship,” Huggins recalled. “The next year we lost in the Elite Eight after we lost Alan Jackson. We all believe if he hadn’t tore his knee up we would have been back in the Final Four.”

It is almost as it was last year as his team got to the Final Four before losing to Duke in a game where his star, Da’Sean Butler, also tore his knee up, although to be fair that came with WVU down by 17 points with 8 minutes to play.

The truth was, the way Duke shot that night they would not have won that game if Butler had possessed three good knees.

Now the Mountaineers move on with a new team, a different team in that Butler and Devin Ebanks have left for the NBA and Wellington Smith has graduated. Those who went through the run to the Final Four got close enough to a national title to carry a taste for it and still cling to the ugly memory of that defeat.

“We still think about it,” senior guard Joe Mazzulla admits. “It probably took a month or so before we had to put it behind us so we could start working toward this year, but you don’t want to forget something that. You always want to keep that in the back of your head while you compete.

“You get so close without winning one, you wonder how many people had that chance. You wish you could go back and change some things about it, but at this point it’s too late. You have to use it as motivation and keep that taste in your mouth to try and get back there.”

The experience, Mazzulla said, adds something to what WVU brings to the Big East race this year.

“We have working for us that we’ve been to the Final Four. We have a certain kind of swagger, if that’s what you call it. We know what it takes. We want to get back there. We know what we have to do. With that approach we can work that much harder and have that much more confidence,” he said.

In some ways this will be a different kind of team, one with a true big man be it Deniz Kilicli or Danny Jennings, and Huggins plans on playing his two point guards, Mazzulla and Truck Bryant, together most of the time.

“Guys like Deniz and Danny are going to have to play well for us to win,” Huggins said. “Deniz is going to have to be the guy we throw the ball to in order to score. I don’t know if they’re ready to do that.

“Guys who were reserves a year ago — Dalton Pepper and Casey Mitchell — are going to have to respond. John Flowers is going to have to step up a little bit more.”

Mitchell was suspended indefinately Friday for violation of team rules.

And, of course, Kevin Jones is going to have to fill the role that Butler had a year ago as he led the team in scoring and made the clutch plays. He isn’t shying away from it.

“Honestly I kind of like that role,” Jones said. “I played that role when I was in high school. I’m looking forward to accepting the challenge that Da’Sean had. I think that’s what made him so good, that he accepted that challenge every time it was given to him. It’s what I want to do.”

Huggins expects big things from Jones, who averaged 13.5 points a game last year to go with 7.2 rebounds.

“He probably will get the ball in crucial situations more. What we have to be careful with, what Kevin has to be careful with is, you have to do what you’re good at doing. A year ago he did what he was good at doing. He made all the shots and played with his back to the basket.

“It’s kind of like asking Da’Sean to play with his back to the basket. He could play there, but that’s not his strength. His strength was his versatility. We have to be careful, once you get outside your comfort zone it gets hard. Kevin is very, very good at some things and needs to keep doing those things.”

Jones, however, doesn’t see him being the focal point of the team.

“My whole thing is that it’s not so much me, it’s a team thing. If everyone pulls his weight, we’ll be fine. I don’t need to carry the scoring load. We have a lot of scorers. They just haven’t proven themselves as scorers on this level yet.”

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

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