By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
After losing yet another close game, one which not only could have been won but probably should have been won at Iowa State, West Virginia University’s men’s basketball coach addressed a problem that goes far deeper than just his own difficulties.
Bob Huggins observed that the problem was more of a cultural one than an athletic one, a problem that he could not solve by asking his players to perform harder or better but instead one that he could only solve by changing his philosophy of the game.
“Truth of the matter is this was a team built to play in the Big East, a big physical league. We just have to go small because that has not worked,” said Huggins.
What he faces, really, is no different than what Dana Holgorsen faced in football and, almost certainly, what the other WVU sports have come across in their specialties.
Leagues – or conferences, if you prefer — take on their own persona over a period of years.
In basketball, for example, the Big East and the Big Ten have been power leagues, built around strong, inside games where the battle is on the boards.
The Big 12, on the other hand, is more of a running conference. While not as wide open as the football conference — probably because the power team in the league, Kansas, is always more traditional than other teams — it still likes to go up and down the court and make use of smaller, quicker players than the Big East or Big Ten.
If you are going to do as Huggins likes to do, build around defense and rebounding, using the Deniz Kiliclis and Dominique Rutledges and Kevin Noreens of the world, you wind up with serious matchup problems that come back to haunt you.
Now, if you have Devin Ebanks, Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones together on one team, it doesn’t matter what league you play in, but that doesn’t happen very often unless you look down and see “Duke” or “Kansas” or “North Carolina” written across your chest.
Conferences develop their own personalities, just as individuals do. It is an extension of the coaches, yes, but it is more for it is also taps into the heartbeat of the areas where the conference schools are concentrated.
Indeed, Southeastern Conference football is different than Big 12 football … much of it based on history, much of it on the type of athletes being produced in the high school systems and much of it being dictated by what the ticket-buying public wants to see.
When Holgorsen came to West Virginia, he got by in the first year with a strong, developing offense that he had brought out of the Big 12 into an offensively deficient Big East Conference and by inheriting a defense that had a number of NFL prospects who were able to perform no matter what was thrown at them.
But when they moved into the Big 12, lost the veteran defenders, they suffered badly because the defensive coaching staff was caught up in a team with an offensive flavor and because it just was a defense that wasn’t experienced at carrying out the assignments laid upon them.
Holgorsen did not address this in mid-season, as Huggins now has done, and suffered through a season that fell far short of expectations, even though his three marquee offensive players lived up to all expectations.
Now you have Huggins admitting his team was built as a Big East team, which certainly is not a bad thing in the basketball world, but that it is not matching up well with Big 12 opponents and that has led to losing some heartbreaking decisions, games Huggins is used to winning.
He vows to change things around, to rely less on his big men and more on his guards.
Will it work out, asking so much more of the likes of Eron Harris and Matt Humphrey, who was rediscovered in the Iowa State comeback, and relying on a four-guard offense when the matchup dictates it?
It is intriguing, and to make it even more intriguing is the fact that his game today is not within the Big 12 conference, but instead the final non-conference game at Purdue, where his bigger lineup might be better suited than the one he wants to use in the Big 12.
Huggins would only say he would go the way the matchups dictate, so he might hold off on going small, especially since Gary Browne might not play due to an ankle sprain. Huggins does expect to have freshman guard Terry Henderson back after missing the Iowa State game with back problems.
Certainly, there is no wiggle room left any longer with eight losses if the NCAA Tournament is to remain an objective for this season.
WVU needs to go on a winning streak, or it’s going to be a long winter that comes to an early end.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.