The Times West Virginian

February 8, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU, Irish strikingly similar

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Consider, if you will, that it is Nov. 25 past, that the West Virginia University basketball team is running a routine drill four games into its season, getting ready for the Akron game when Kevin Jones goes down in a heap on the floor, his ACL torn, his season over.

Consider what Bob Huggins might say.

“Kevin Jones is one of the great stories in college athletics and represents everything that is good about college basketball. We are all disappointed for him, because of all that he has meant to our program.”

Where would West Virginia be today had that been the way history was written?

Probably nowhere, you say.

You are probably right, which is why today so much credit must be given to Notre Dame, for they lost their “Kevin Jones” just that way on Nov. 25 when fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis, their unquestioned team leader, was lost for the year.

Those words, substituting Abromaitis for Jones, were uttered by Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, not Huggins.

Somehow, with baling wire and Super Glue maybe, coach Mike Brey has patched his team together, and today it comes to Morgantown to face WVU on the verge of cracking the Top 25 and riding a four-game winning streak in the Big East, three of the victories being against ranked teams and one of them being over then-No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse.

The comparisons between programs are valid. Entering this season, Abromaitis had averaged 13.7 points and 4.7 rebounds a game, Jones 13.6 and 7.4 rebounds a game.

Both were anchoring young teams, each with only one other senior, and each team was looked upon as going nowhere big in this season.

West Virginia, however, did not lose Jones. Brey did lose his star, and his approach shows why he is a three-time Big East Coach of the Year.

And, when he talks about it, a lot sounds quite similar to what Huggins has done.

“What we tried to do in November and December was really scale it down,” he said. “I used the Gonzaga locker room many times.”

By that he was referring to a 73-53 loss to No. 18 Gonzaga early in the year that left his team at its low point, coming as it did at a time when they were dropping three of four games.

It also was the first game after the Abromaitis injury.

“My theme was we are not really very good right now,” Brey recalled on Monday. “Can we just take some tiny steps and have two good practices in a row first?”

He knew his team was fragile at the moment, a ship without a rudder in a raging NCAA basketball sea.

“They were taking some bullets early. They were hearing there’s no way they were going to the NCAA, that they were an NIT team,” Brey said.

He had to work with attitudes rather than skills.

“I was like, ‘That’s a long way away. I’d just like to see us practice good two days in a row,’” he said.

He worked them hard, but he worked with them.

“I’d be giving them feedback. I’d tell them, ‘That was a good practice today. We won practice today.’ Those were the kind of little steps I wanted us to take,” he said.

Still, the season was rocky.

On Dec. 17, they played Indiana in Indianapolis and lost, 69-58, a dismal performance, but Brey couldn’t allow his team to see it that way.

“I was trying to pull something positive out of that,” he said. “That’s about as far as you could go with the confidence.”

What he pulled out of it was a different style of basketball, a slow-down style, to stage an upset of No. 22 Pittsburgh two games later.

“It was kind of neat. It was new for me, a new challenge because we’d had all these veteran groups at Notre Dame,” Brey explained. “Sometimes, when you have young guys, they don’t know they don’t know. They can be kind of naïve, and you tell them, ‘It’s not that bad, fellas,’ and they go and say. ‘Oh, geez, it’s all right.’

“They are good students. That’s why I love coaching here. We got the Pittsburgh game and you got something to build on now. You have something tangible with beating Pittsburgh.”

The Irish survived. They beat No. 10 Louisville and seemed to be moving in the right direction when, as with all young teams, they fell apart, losing two straight to bring out the naysayers.

That’s when Syracuse came to South Bend’s House of Horrors and was knocked off, inspiring three more victories over Seton Hall, No. 19 Connecticut and No. 15 Marquette.

The Syracuse win changed everything. Brey calls it “the shot heard ’round the world.”

“The shot heard ’round the world makes a group feel good about themselves,” he said. “We got more hungry; we got more anxious. We started thinking maybe we have something here. The thing I loved with this group is with each win we started thinking, ‘Maybe we are special.’”

Maybe, but a lot of special teams have come into the Coliseum and found out they aren’t so special after all.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.