By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The old year has become the new, which is a significant milepost in a college basketball season.
The non-league portion of the schedule slides from the present into history and teams begin their conference schedules, an event that comes around on Saturday afternoon at 4 o’clock when Oklahoma comes to the Coliseum for West Virginia University’s inaugural game in the Big 12 Conference, an affair of no small historical importance.
They bring with them a 77-70 victory scored over the Mountaineers in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., already and whatever confidence comes with that Thanksgiving tournament win, but West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’ biggest concern is that he has not seen his team show the improvement necessary.
For whatever reason, they have been Teflon in their approach to the game, and it has begun to get under Huggins’ skin, even as they beat Eastern Kentucky in their final non-conference game before conference play begins.
“It’s incredibly frustrating to have to say the same thing day after day after day after day. They keep doing the same things,” he noted after the Mountaineers survived a late rally by Eastern that was built almost entirely on what he deemed unacceptable play rather than the opponent’s ability to do things right.
Huggins turned to one play that was gnawing away at him in the aftermath of the game. They had a player trapped down inside by two players when yet a third went in to tighten the screws around him.
“You don’t help ball side,” Huggins said, lecturing the media as he would his team. “When you have a guy trapped under the basket, you don’t run in there. That might be the single dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a basketball game. You’ve got a guy trapped who wasn’t going to score over two 6-9 guys to start with, and you leave a guy wide open the corner for a three … a guy who just happens to be their leading scorer, by the way.”
Perhaps Huggins was exaggerating for effect, but think how much he has seen to come up with something he could all “the single dumbest thing” he’s ever seen in a basketball game.
At least he didn’t coach Gordon Malone at West Virginia, or he never could have made that statement.
But he was just warming up.
“And then it happened a second time,” he said, incredulously. “I was different (when I played), I guess. If I saw a guy taken out of a game for doing something wrong I wasn’t going to do that. I might screw up doing a lot of other things, but I wasn’t doing that. I wanted to stay in the game.”
This, however, is not all that is going on. Huggins was asked how his team could have dominated so in the first half, building a 17-point lead, they let Eastern Kentucky come back and he laid it all out there on the line again.
“It starts out having your 6-9, 260-pound center (Deniz Kilicli) standing wide open under the basket and we don’t throw him the ball. By the time we realize he’s open and throw him the
ball, they are down there with him and foul him. He misses two free throws. Next time down we figure it out and he hits 1 of 2 free throws but meantime they hit a couple of 3s.
“All of a sudden they got momentum going and we’re hanging our heads. As soon as we missed those two free throws I said, ’Oh, my gosh, here it comes.’ It always does.”
And the comeback did come.
“It’s too hard a game, it’s too hard a game to look off wide-open guys, to do that or when we get it to a 14-point lead and run a back-door cut and miss a layup. … I mean a wide-open layup. You can’t do that. Good teams don’t do that,” he said, referring to a missed layup not much off from those run in the pre-game layup line.
Huggins believes they just aren’t playing the game the way it has to be played. He has his own ideas of what he wants, much like Kentucky he’d like them to employ some dribble drive, to penetrate, break down defenses.
“Have you watched the dribble drive, really? Have you watched Kentucky?” he said during his post-game press conference against Eastern. “They shoot jump shots. They shoot 3s. They don’t get a whole lot of layups. They penetrate and pitch. They penetrate and they kick.”
At this point Huggins reached down and grabbed a box score from the day’s game and tossed it out on the table.
“Now I’m going to give you a stat sheet and you tell me who you want me to kick it to?” he said.
You could have gone through the entire group … there is no one who is reliable.
“We’ve got a guy that took 10 shots today and he’s shooting 19 percent from 3,” Huggins said, referring to Gary Browne.
Of the 10 teams in the Big 12, only Texas is shooting worse from the floor than WVU’s 40.5 percent, and only Texas Tech is shooting worse than WVU’s 27.5 percent from 3.
“The thing is, they’re nice kids. I don’t have any issues. They’re cordial. They are good folk. But as soon as school starts I’ll find a hell of a lot of those kinds of kids in the library, and I don’t think they can play, either,” Huggins said.
“In the end, that’s what’s wrong. But I understand; I recruited them; I’ll fix it.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.