By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It has been wearing on Deniz Kilicli all season, and why shouldn’t it be, because whether he wanted it to be or not, this was his team in the eyes of nearly everyone.
Oh, when Bob Huggins coaches a team, it is his team and his alone, but Kilicli was the lone starting senior, the most visible player on the court because of his presence and, in many ways, the player who most represented the style of physical basketball that Huggins wanted to play.
The problem was that Kilicli is one of those players whose looks are deceiving. On the exterior is intimidatingly big, 260 or so pounds spread across a chiseled body that he worked hard to develop this year, a hard, square jaw under a Mountaineers beard.
Underneath that look, though, there is a sensitive man who has interests that spread beyond the boundaries of a basketball court, almost as dedicated to the music that comes from his guitar as to his basketball playing.
As a role player in the days with Da’Sean Butler and then Kevin Jones as the key men on the team, he was asked to just be strong inside, the game not being run through him. His job was to grab some rebounds, bang on the boards, fight the opposing big man down low.
This year, though, he was thrust into cleanup spot. The offense would run through him, and it would be run by inexperienced kids, freshmen and sophomores, who really were not ready to handle what came with what was needed from them.
Early on in the year Kilicli struggled, and Huggins was publicly critical of him and hard on him. This was, of course, Huggins being Huggins, for that’s the way he coaches, but he also was sending messages to his younger players who would see that if the coach would jump the senior, they better get their stuff in order.
Only they didn’t. Even as Kilicli pulled his season together and of late has been what had been expected of him, reaching a season high in points with 20 in the loss to Oklahoma on Wednesday night, you could see it was taking a toll on him.
He had been there facing the media, being voice of the players for most of the long, hard season, expressing his disappointment in the team and in himself, once going so far as to note that this was simply a bad team with bad players.
And he was including himself in that group.
It finally seems to have gotten to him. Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail reported in his blog from Oklahoma that Kilicli didn’t have much to say after this game.
“He finished a response to one question in the postgame interview, tensed up, listened to another question, stammered through a reply and slowly stood up and walked away,” Casazza blogged.
Part of it was from falling behind early almost every time on the floor and fighting back only to come up short, then having to explain it later. As his career comes to a close, you feel for him in this department.
But there is something else that has been going on all season in conference play on the floor, something that Huggins finally had to address after what he has seen over and over.
“I don’t understand why when Deniz gets bumped it’s not a foul and when everyone else gets bumped it is a foul. You can’t tell me he doesn’t get bumped every bit as much as they get bumped. It’s so frustrating,” he said.
He wasn’t alone in noting this, for the TV commentators during the Oklahoma game had said nearly the same thing.
Maybe it comes about because of the way he looks or the lumbering style of play that seems to beg contact, but somehow it seems that all year he has been hacked and bumped and mugged without getting nearly the number of whistles he should have drawn.
It’s almost over now, a Saturday Senior Day game against Iowa State and then whatever the Mountaineers can make of the Big 12 Tournament.
It’s a sorry end for a standup guy who tried hard and deserved a whole lot more out of his final year.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.