By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Maybe now we can get back to normal, and around these parts normal means to take a little bit of sunshine out of West Virginia basketball courtesy of Darryl “Truck” Bryant.
Until Saturday at the Coliseum, when the shooting gods finally took the lid off the basket that Bryant was aiming at and he scored 24 points in a victory over Notre Dame, the game of basketball had been terrorizing the guard who came to us off the streets of New York.
It was reaching proportions that no one could imagine, one shot after another going clank in the night, that is if they even managed to rattle off the rim rather than fall to earth without so much as touching anything.
The more it happened, the worse it got, and the worse it got, the more it happened. That created a tremendous void not only in the Mountaineer offense, but in the general attitude of the Mountaineer population at large.
See, it is difficult to become upset with Truck Bryant, because deep in your heart you know that basketball is … well, just basketball, a very small part of the universe in which we all exist.
Bryant, you see, can make a moonless night light with his electric smile, the best that has flashed on a basketball court since maybe Magic Johnson himself. He is an easy-going kid who likes to laugh, who is engaging to talk to and who is human enough in such conversation that he can come up with a statement such as the one following Saturday’s game.
Talking about Bob Huggins and the technical foul that he had earned, Bryant described him as a “compassionate” coach, which Huggins’ players will tell is the truth, but at that moment of the technical foul, Bryant meant to refer to him as a “passionate” coach.
On this day, though, whatever Bryant said was right, for he had just poured in 24 points — 20 of them in the second half — and for the first time since we all sang “Auld Lang Syne” and toasted in the New Year Bryant was smiling again.
Bryant all along has been the first to admit that he had been struggling.
“I haven’t been playing good at all. I felt like I wasn’t helping our team at all in any way,” he said.
It is difficult to understand just how badly a slump of any kind can destroy the attitude and demeanor of an athlete, for each and every one of them is compassionate about his sport … right, Truck?
“It was rough for me,” Bryant admitted. “When you miss shots that’s the only thing you’re thinking about.”
People come up to you on the street and try to be nice, saying things like “Don’t worry, they’ll start falling.” They mean well but it only makes you think of it again. It’s like the slump never leaves your side.
You wake up in the morning and pour a glass of milk and if any of it spills you figure “Darn, I can’t even pour the milk in a glass, how am I ever gonna hit a jump shot?”
You practice more and more, harder and harder, and the harder you practice, the harder it gets.
True, Bob Huggins tells his players that nothing is better for them than hard work.
“Working hard doesn’t guarantee success but it gives you a heck of a lot better chance,” he said. “You have to go shoot the ball.”
The problem is that Bryant was shooting it. He wasn’t making it. Oh, in practice they’d go in. Warming up they’d go in.
In a game, though, something would go haywire and he’d begin to press and that’s when you are dead.
But Huggins says you have to keep gunning away.
“We all get tired of watching misses. They get tired of watching it as much as we do, but you have to keep shooting it until you get back in that groove. The more you shoot it the better your chances you’ll shoot it well.”
Against Notre Dame, WVU felt from their scouting reports that Bryant and Joe Mazzulla could handle their guards, go by them when necessary.
“We knew they couldn’t guard the ball,” Bryant said. “We wanted to attack them. We played against them several times. They’re the same every year, just different guys.”
Mazzulla was having his way in the first half driving to the basket but Bryant missed every shot he took. Despite that, he stayed there as Casey Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer, sat on the bench.
When Bryant started making shots, Mitchell became his top cheerleader, bouncing up off the bench, smiling and laughing and having a wonderful time.
“Even though he didn’t play much he was still smiling and cheering for us,” Bryant said, aware of what was going on. “Some days it’s not your night. It happened to be my night tonight.”
Now, maybe Bryant is ready to take off and give the Mountaineers what they expected all along, he and Mazzulla doing things right at guard.
“He did a great job of making his shots and got into a rhythm. Once he did that they couldn’t help off him and that made my job easier. We did a good job of working off of each other,” Mazzulla said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.