The Times West Virginian

January 23, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Mountaineer youngsters begin to grow

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — This, I promise you, is a first, for no one at no time in no place ever has found a way to tie Bob Huggins, the West Virginia basketball coach, in with Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women.”

Yet that is what we plan to do today, for in a very real way there is a connection between the two.

Now, they say Alcott really wasn’t much of a ball handler and she couldn’t dunk, but when it came to words, she was pretty good with them and there is one quote in particular that is attributed to her that well could have come from the lips of the rough, gruff Mr. Huggins.

“Don’t try to make me grow up before my time ...” Alcott is credited with saying, and it is perfect advice for Huggins, for he has been nurturing a young, inexperienced team of basketball players.

In fact, it could be said that he has actually been trying to make them grow up before their time, yet as anyone involved in child development knows, only nature can bring about the process of maturation.

It isn’t that Huggins hasn’t tried to rush things along with the likes of Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne and Aaron Brown and Keaton Miles, et al.  

In fact, when asked about whether or not they were growing up, his answer was typical Huggins at its best.

“We don’t give them a whole lot of choice,” he said.

Indeed. This year what he did simply was to say, “Here’s the fire. Walk right into it.”

And that was just what they wanted to hear.

“The biggest reason why most of those guys are so excited about being here is they knew they were going to play. We didn’t have a whole lot of guys coming back. The opportunity has been there for all of them. But we don’t give them any choice. They don’t get babied.”

And that may be why, at this stage of their still budding careers, they are beginning to produce some magical moments.

“You see them growing right in front of your eyes,” the veteran Kevin Jones, leader of the Mountaineers, said Saturday after Gary Browne tossed in as clutch a 3-point shot as you’ll ever get from someone as experienced as Kobe Bryant to force overtime against Cincinnati in a game the Mountaineers would eventually win.

Indeed, this was a game where Truck Bryant, the veteran guard who is supposed to be taking those shots, had a dismal off day and he needed Browne and Hinds to step up and fill the void, which each did.

In a way it was surprising, for they probably shouldn’t quite be ready for that much to be put on their shoulders yet, but as Huggins has said, he didn’t have any choice in the matter.

There also have been hints as the season has gone on that they were passing into basketball manhood.

Hinds gave a clue in the Marshall game when he broke out what we will call, for a lack of anything better, “The Jabarie Shuffle.”

This was a move that was part Fred Astaire, part Michael Jackson and part Muhammad Ali.

Guarded closely by a defender, Hinds did some of the fanciest footwork you have ever seen, leaving the defender bending over to pull up his shorts as he went by him to score a layup.

“I’ve been working on my ball handling,” Hinds would say later. “That game, that moment, that was the time for it.”

In a way that told you about the maturity ... he’d worked on the move, didn’t break it out impatiently, then used it at just the right time.

It hasn’t been easy on Hinds, for he didn’t get approval from the NCAA to join the Mountaineers with the rest of the freshman class.

“He didn’t have the luxury of getting 10 days’ practice in the summer. He didn’t have the luxury of going to Italy and playing 10 games. He’s never played point guard. They needed him to score, so he was more an off-guard forward kind of guy in high school,” Huggins said.

“Because of this, each time you give him the ball he just gets better and better and better.”

That missed time didn’t give a pass with Huggins, who pushed him and demanded of him. Even in the Marshall game when he pulled off that move, he was yanked early for not running what Huggins wanted run.

Think that made an impression?

“From that time on, every time we broke the huddle he came to me and said, ‘What are we running and who do I throw it to?’” Huggins revealed. “He’s a great kid. I know you guys know how great a guy Kevin Jones is. Jabarie Hinds is cut out of the same cloth. He’s great to be around. He wants to get better. He wants to win. You have zero issues with Jabarie.”

It’s the same with Browne, too.

The two of them are doing fine, just so long as they don’t have to grow up before their time.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.