By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The psyche of an athletic team, and it really doesn’t matter which sport, is a fragile thing, often held together by nothing stronger than the next game or, in some cases, the next play.
That is why coaches are so handsomely rewarded.
Most of them, you will find, are capable enough with the Xs and Os, having spent an internship under someone with experience and knowledge. They know how to put together a batting order in baseball or an passing game in football or a motion offense in basketball.
It is the “emotion offense” that separates the good coaches from the bad.
Keeping a winning team from thinking it is invincible is as hard as convincing a losing team that it is capable of winning. If you think about it, there is very little difference in a handling a hitter who has gone hitless in 13 consecutive at bats than there is in handling a jump shooter who has missed 13 straight jump shots.
Perhaps you might have noticed over the past several games, dating back to the equivalent of prehistoric times in terms of a basketball season, West Virginia’s Mountaineers have had a bit of problem making baskets.
That always, in the end, manifests itself on the won-lost sheet, for the games are still decided by points scored and if you can’t score more than the opponent, you lose, and that makes it the kind of problem that a coach must solve.
In many ways, shooting a basketball and hitting a baseball are similar, although Ted Williams was not wrong when he said that hitting a baseball “is the hardest thing to do in sports.” Indeed, hitting a 5-plus inch spheroid thrown at you at 95 miles an hour that can curve or drop or come straight at your head and hitting it squarely with a round bat does present a number of problems, all of which must be solved in less than half a second.
But shooting a basketball requires hand-eye coordination and depth perception, as it is with a batter, and often it must be done on the run with a hand in your face.
You ask Bob Huggins about the degree of difficulty in shooting a basketball and you get a rather astute assessment of the skill.
“Standing and shooting a basketball is not hard,” Huggins began. “But you have a guy who is 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 running at you, where you have to pull the trigger quicker and shoot the ball higher and sometimes do it on the run, it becomes very hard. There’s not a whole lot of guys who can score off the move.”
Huggins’ team has spent a long time in a shooting slump, if not throwing up a combination of bricks and air balls, as they say on the street, then at least throwing up some of the strangest looking shots over the last seven games that you could see.
The problem is the more you miss, the more you are going to miss because shooting also takes an intangible known as confidence and that can only come with success.
So it was as the Mountaineers took the court to face DePaul, a dreadful defensive team, Huggins saw his chance to develop an offense that would seem sure to breed success. DePaul was a pressure team that doubled the ball, meaning someone would always be open, often more than one person.
The idea was to put them in position to have an easy, makeable shot, often called a layup, sometimes a dunk.
“I tell Casey, Truck and Pep, if you go out and blast up five jumpers and don’t make any, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I’m having a bad day, you’re 0-for-5,’” Huggins said, referring to Casey Mitchell, Truck Bryant and Dalton Pepper, his outside shooting guards.
“But if you get yourself a layup and a rebound, all of a sudden you’re 2-for-5 and thinking the next one might go in.”
So it was that he started the game with a set play through Cam Thoroughman to Joe Mazzulla, who made a back cut to the basket, broke free as expected and made the layup, to make the game 2-0 10 seconds in.
You know what happened the next time Mazzulla shot the ball. Good! 4-0.
Time after time WVU had easy layups, and the more they made, the more they got. It was terribly out of character for the team.
“We just don’t get easy baskets. We’re so undersized,” Huggins said after the game. “Cam (Thoroughman), bless his heart, gets offensive rebounds but has no chance to finish over all that length. We have to do a better job of throwing it out and we need to do a better of positioning ourselves so he can throw it out.”
All of this will allow the Mountaineers to head to Syracuse to face their zone defense on Monday with the confidence of having shot 52.8 percent in their last game. They go in there with Dalton Pepper having had a 3 for 6 shooting night and with Casey Mitchell 4 for 6 and John Flowers 6 of 11 with a couple of 3s.
Perhaps the shooting slump now is history and the Mountaineers are ready to roar through the stretch.
Or, perhaps, Syracuse will throw them a nasty curveball.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.