By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
That Bob Huggins is on his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame is a given, but it’s highly possible that people don’t really understand what makes him a Hall of Fame coach.
Certainly, you can look at the wins and losses and realize that he’s on a path that might take him to as many as 900 victories, owning 710 at the current moment. You can point to a couple of Final Fours as signs of his best accomplishments, although you suspect he might wind up taking his team all the way before he’s through.
To do this, of course, a coach must be a great recruiter, which Huggins is, and a great game coach, which he is, too.
But Huggins has something else working for him, an innate ability to read his players and to apply psychology that makes them operate at their maximum capacity.
He showed that this weekend in South Florida, walking into a bubbling caldron of basketball fever as the Bulls, long a doormat in the Big East, were sitting a victory away from a double-bye in the conference tournament and with an NCAA bid on the line.
The town had gone bonkers. The catchword around town was MADNESS, stripped across the top of the school’s basketball website, printed across the 10,000 white T-shirts they handed out to fans for the game that made up the biggest crowd of the season.
It was the kind of thing that South Florida figured to feed off and that could have been deadly for WVU in a game that was equally as crucial to it.
So it was Huggins who had to figure a way to make that work for him, not against him.
How could he possibly do that?
Listen to what he told his team.
“This is what gets me excited, coming into a place saying it is playing its biggest game in 20 years. Do you know what? That says a lot about where the programs are. When was the last time we played our biggest game in 20 years? Probably never,” he said.
His point was that WVU’s program is on such a higher level than South Florida, that the Mountaineers regularly walk into an arena as they did in Wichita to play Kansas State and face 18,000 hostile fans, fans who show up to see WVU.
To Huggins, this was something his team should accept as a tribute to them, as a challenge to prove that South Florida can’t intimidate them with 10,000 fans, most of them at a Bulls game for the first time.
“I don’t think it will affect us very much at all,” he said prior to the game. “If it does, it will be to get us more revved up.”
And that was just how it worked out. WVU didn’t play very well on offense, but no one does against South Florida, but it played hard and played defense and it pounded the boards. It, not South Florida, was the team on a mission.
See, Huggins understands that games are not won on game day. They are won before then, in the build-up to the game, in the practice and the scouting and preparing for an opponent.
Huggins was confident about this game because he had seen the approach his team took in practice.
“Our practice (the day before the game) was the best practice we’ve had in months,” Huggins said before the game. “We did what we needed to do. They were very attentive and really listened. They were really into doing what you need to do.”
Practice good; play good. He knows it; his team knows it.
“It’s all mentality,” senior Kevin Jones said after the victory over DePaul. “The way we enter practice, the way we enter the shoot around ... when we come in with positive thoughts, with positive body language, when everyone plays together and shares the ball and plays tough defense, then we’re a tough team to beat.”
Huggins started coaching for this game back in the moments after his team had lost to Marquette on Feb. 24, when he lashed out at his freshmen, when he called one player a “coward” and said he despised cowards.
That came in frustration, perhaps, but one suspects a man of Huggins’ intellect and experience knew he could not get the Marquette game back but he could get his players back to perform the rest of the way out and did so using the media as a conduit.
The older players understood.
“That’s Huggs after a loss,” Jones said last week. “We kind of joked about it a little bit. You have to make light of the situation, even though it was a tough loss. We had to find some kind of positive about it. It made us closer as a team.”
The intensity picked up. The performance improved.
“The young guys,” Jones said, “are finally understanding the way you have to play to be a Mountaineer.”
And now they head into the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. They are peaking at the right time because they have a coach who knows how to get them there.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.