By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — There are reasons why Bob Huggins is one of the best coaches in college basketball today or in any other day.
He is, as everyone understands, a master recruiter, which is the first step toward greatness for there never was a coach who was any better than the players he put on the floor.
Then he is truly a superb technician, a coach who makes his Xs and Os carry as much meaning as does the word Xerox. His offense is different from game to game, tailored around a defenses weaknesses and his own strengths, while he is most comfortable with a switching, in-your-face man-to-man defense he is willing to use gimmicks when to change the flow of the game or to cut down on an opponent’s advantage over him.
But where Huggins is at his best is in his ability to communicate with his players, to get them to accept his gruff, sometimes vulgar coaching methods by also showing them a softer, more understanding side when that moment becomes necessary.
He can be in a player’s face at one moment in a game, even if that player has done something that worked, while at another moment he might have his arm around his shoulder, comforting him when he needs to comforted.
So it is now as his Mountaineers reach a rather critical moment in their regular season.
For the first time this year he is coaching a team that has lost consecutive games, having lost to Villanova and Pitt as it readies itself to go on the road to play a desperate Providence team that has five straight losses.
They do this at a moment when the Big East is trending toward upsets, with Louisville having knocked off Syracuse on Saturday and Connecticut having upset Villanova on Monday night, to say nothing of a week-old upset of Rutgers over Georgetown.
One would think, knowing Huggins’ public persona, that he would have flipped off after blowing a lead at Pitt by missing free throws and then losing in overtime. One would think practice would become 120 minutes of hell, but that is where Huggins becomes so clever as a coach.
He believes, with the timing, coming off a Saturday-Monday double disaster that his teams needs not hard work and punishment but a couple of days off, and so it was to be that on Tuesday they rested.
“We’ve had pretty tough stretch,” Huggins said. “I wanted to give them a couple days off. I was going to do that, win or lose.”
Off a win, it would have looked like a prize and have been lost in the translation.
Coming off a loss the players clearly understand that it is to give them a chance to shake off the negativity and gain a second wind for the stretch run of a season that still holds tremendous promise.
“I honestly can’t wait until our next practice and our next game,” WVU point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant said a half hour after the 98-95 triple overtime loss to Pitt. “That’s the only thing I can think about. I’ve got a real bad taste in my mouth.”
Huggins understood their eagerness to get back to the grind.
“Well, if they didn’t, we’d probably have to check their pulse,” Huggins said. “When you lose a game like that, I’m sure you’d want to go back in, but the whole battle is you have to want to go back in all the time. Doesn’t matter if you win 10 in a row of just gave a game away. You should want to get back in there all the time.”
Time off should be treasured, and Huggins believes that this will be the pause that refreshes, with all due apologizes to that cola company.
The truth is that the Mountaineers well may have lost that Pitt game due to weariness. Missing the front end of three 1 and 1s down the stretch after having played Villanova and Pitt for almost 80 minutes in a three-day period could well have left them gasping and anyone who has ever stepped to the line knows a tired free throw is a bad free throw.
Huggins certainly doesn’t want to turn those three misses into a mental problem, to magnify the free throw shooting problem.
He knows that they know that missing free throws is unacceptable and will make it part of their return to the gym.
Because of that, he wasn’t going to turn it into a major production.
At this time of year, talent will take over. The coach now has to guide his team through the icebergs of defeat and to drive them to their limit would almost certainly produce negative results.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.