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February 22, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Bryant dilemma could cause headache for Huggs

MORGANTOWN — All too often you hear cries from the bleacher seats about the insanity of the salaries paid coaches today and, for the most part, those cries carry a good bit of validity.

The great ones, however, usually earn their keep.

I have never heard or read of anyone criticizing what Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Boeheim or Nick Saban or even Urban Meyer for their salaries. In fact, if it were up to me I would give Krzyzewski a bonus for being able to endorse his paycheck without misspelling it.

In truth, the same goes for Bob Huggins here at West Virginia University, partly because there is total agreement that the man earns every nickel that is paid him and partly because of the fear that he’s liable to rip the lungs out through the nose of anyone who said he didn’t.

Oh, there are days when Coach K or Boeheim or Saban or Meyer or Huggins don’t really earn their pay, easy days when things go right and they don’t have to discipline anyone or recruit anyone or outsmart anyone, but more often than not they are engaged under fire in the most public arena there is, the unblinking eye of ESPN.

 Certainly today Huggins will be earning his salary, which is right around $2 million this year or $57,143 per game should the Mountaineers play about 35 games.

Today, you see, they go to Notre Dame and play in an arena where dreams go to die. Win this game and they probably assure themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament, although a loss doesn’t necessarily eliminate them from such consideration.

They are playing a team riding an eight-game winning streak, including a 55-51 victory over the Mountaineers in Morgantown, and that has one of the hottest players in college basketball today in big man Jack Cooley.

With that said, it is up to Huggins to figure out a way to win this game, to fix whatever it was that was wrong against Notre Dame the first time and to make a victory at Pittsburgh become the springboard for the Mountaineers’ own late-season run.

In the center of all this is one Darryl “Truck” Bryant, WVU senior, team co-captain … and as puzzling a problem as Huggins will ever have.

Huggins pulled the plug on the slumping Bryant against Pitt, put him on the bench to start, and WVU won … but that was then and this is now, and when you come to a game like this in a foreign land such as South Bend, Ind., you want your experienced captain there the whole time.

True, he did not make a basket against Notre Dame but not many others did either, save for Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli, who scored 30 of the team’s 51 points.

Bryant handled the decision not to start him well and was there on the floor at the end and had played a key role in the rally that broke the game open. Still, though, he didn’t shoot well, and a case could be made for opening the game without him.

“It’s a coach’s decision, and there’s nothing I can do about that,” Bryant said after the last game, not exactly applauding Huggins’ strategy but riding along with it. “I just do what he says. As long as we win, I don’t care. I have no worries.”

Certainly, his teammates would rather see him out there, as long as he going to play sensibly, his biggest problem being that he gets himself into the lane among the giants far too often with too few options to bail himself out.

Against Pitt, that didn’t happen.

“Truck bought in,” senior Kevin Jones said after the game. “He did his role and took open shots and didn’t force things.”

He got off 11 shots and made only four of them, but he wasn’t giving things away as he had done in frustration in the previous couple of games.

The way the team has evolved, WVU works inside out, preferring Jones and Kilicli be the first options with the guards only scoring on breaks or when nothing is there inside and the ball is kicked out.

A betting man would lean to Huggins starting Bryant against Notre Dame and going with three guards rather than using the perplexing freshman Keaton Miles, whose talent is such that Huggins has seen fit to start him all year but whose maturity level has kept him from producing much of anything.

The thing is West Virginia cannot walk away from this game leaving anything behind. If it is to lose, it must be because Notre Dame beat the Mountaineers and not because they beat themselves.

Huggins, you can be sure, will have them on edge, but they will not win if Bryant doesn’t have one of his better evenings.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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