By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Considering how little West Virginia University has left to play for this afternoon in its regular season finale against Iowa State, the focus falls upon senior Deniz Kilicli, to whom it is a game with great meaning.
The 1:30 p.m. game has little to do with WVU’s final status in its first season in the Big 12 as it enters the game with a 13-17 overall record and 6-11 conference mark, worrying only about seeding in the conference tournament.
The Mountaineers are tied with Texas for seventh in the conference and, in truth, they probably don’t even want to finish seventh … that putting them in the bracket with No. 1 seed Kansas.
But that’s small stuff, really, for this team has shown no indication that it can go past a round in the conference tournament, which would almost certainly keep it out of post-season play completely, which turns the focus on Senior Day.
There are, in truth, three seniors in Dominique Rutledge, Matt Humphrey and Kilicli, but Kilicli has been here the longest and been sort of the focal point of this year’s team … sometimes good, sometimes bad, always on center stage.
For him it will be an emotional time, not only because of how he has come from Turkey to become a part of Mountaineer lore, but because his parents will be here for the first time to see him play as a collegian.
And if it will be an emotional time for the player and his family, it will be equally emotional for his coach, Bob Huggins, who comes across as big and gruff but really has a warm spot in his heart for his players, especially Kilicli.
“Deniz has been one of my favorite guys,” Huggins said, a strong statement considering he has been coaching for 31 years. “I never really had a European player before.”
Kilicli took to Huggins right away.
“He talks about how he liked me when he first got here, before he could understand what I was saying,” Huggins laughs.
“He was there for me whenever I needed him,” Kilicli said, referring mostly to his young days here when he 18 and learning to speak the language and what life at an American college was like.
The two developed a father-son relationship, a teacher-student relationship.
Huggins could be tough, but he was also understanding and appreciative of the kind of person Kilicli was, one who not only was tied into basketball but into life itself, right down to playing guitar.
“I appreciated the way he embraced the people of West Virginia and the culture of the state,” Huggins said.
Kilicli got to be part of a Final Four team, got to play with some great players including Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones, but his senior year became something of a disaster, and no one seemed to take it harder than him.
“I’m not healthy. I can’t sleep and I can’t eat,” he said after the last loss at Oklahoma, another tough game in which the team fell far behind early and came back only to lose.
It was much like the first game against Iowa State, a game in which the Mountaineers fell behind by 18 points with 9:04 remaining before going on a furious comeback.
They switched to a four-guard lineup and Kevin Noreen — Kilicli on the bench most of the time — and began hitting 9 of 12 3s after having missed their first 12.
The Mountaineers drew even in that game on a 3 by Jabarie Hinds, but Iowa State got the ball to Will Clyburn on the wing with time running out. As two Mountaineers converged to double-team him, he found Georges Niang alone under the basket for the game-winning layup.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.