By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Sometimes a team has to hit the bottom before it can bounce back toward the top and that is exactly what may have happened with West Virginia when it went to Purdue and was humiliated and embarrassed in a 79-52 defeat.
That brought a certain realization to the team, a realization that was verbalized by Coach Bob Huggins in a post-game chat that may have surprised them, for it wasn’t filled with fire and brimstone and wasn’t laced with profanity.
This was a rational talk, one that let them know where they were, why and what lie ahead, a talk that made them look within themselves for answers and that drew them to take the next step on their own — a players-only meeting which was meant to clear the air.
As Terry Henderson, the freshman shooter, recalled things, it began with Huggins in something of a fatherly chat.
“It was quiet, there was a lot of thinking,” Henderson explained following the Mountaineers’ home victory over TCU. “Huggs said what he had to say. Then we had a team meeting afterward and everyone said what he needed to say. We got everything off our chests.”
These meetings are difficult affairs, for the key to their success is honesty and when a team is mired in a three-game losing streak, the honest things to say are hardly the politically correct things to say.
“We all got together. We told everyone we got to get this straight. We can’t keep disappointing our fans and the whole state,” Henderson said.
And to do that there was really one goal.
“We had to come together more as a team,” Henderson said.
Teams often don’t even know when they are pulling in opposite directions, at least not until they air the dirty laundry in a players only meeting.
The importance of doing this without coaches present can’t be understated. No matter how good a relationship a coach has with his team, he is not a teammate but, instead, an authority figure and that restricts an open flow of ideas.
No one claims that these meetings will always work. Quite to the contrary, sometimes they can be disastrous, but this one seems to have gotten everyone’s attention.
“I think we have everyone in the locker room on board now. We’ve been needing that,” Henderson said.
Being bonded as a team doesn’t make anyone shoot better or rebound better, but it gives everyone a feeling of belonging and a sense of team pride while narrowing the scope and the goals.
Players-only meetings let everyone understand exactly what they are trying to attain and often gives the senior leadership a chance to define just what winning means to the school, to the team, to the players and to the community … things that sometimes are lost in the narrow view of a player trying to get his individual game on track.
That led them into the TCU game with a purpose and while the Mountaineers did not play well they accomplished their purpose, which was to put an end to a three-game losing streak that could have grown to absurd proportions had they dropped that game.
“Our main thing today was we have to win this game,” Henderson revealed. “If we didn’t it would be bad, really, really bad.”
This has been important for Huggins, who has been perplexed by what has happened with this year’s team, even in winning over TCU.
“We do things I’ve never had anyone do. I’ve never had a team not compete like that. We go today and they got a 3 on 1 or a 4 on 2 and we got guys jogging down the floor,” Huggins said. “A guy makes a 3 point play. I go off.”
It was a classic Huggins meltdown, but one that had an effect.
“Next time they come down 2 on 1 it ends up 2 on 4 because guys know they don’t want to hear that anymore,” Huggins said.
Maybe he’s finally getting through.
“At this time of the year I’ve never had to do that before. It’s been a struggle to ingrain how hard you have to compete. When you are the 21st worst shooting team in America, you have to play hard, man,” he said.
Now he takes his team on the road again, hoping that he has taught his lesson and, more important, that the players themselves have taken command of the situation and will begin playing the game as it should be played.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.