By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Games may be won or lost under glaring lights of a college arena, filled with faithful fans and the prying eye of the ever-present, unblinking television camera, but teams are built in a far different way.
They come together in a gym that smells of sweat and yesterday’s hotdogs, where the seats are filled not with fans but the echoes of a ball bouncing on the floor, the shouting of a coach in the midst or practice or simply the grunt and groans of players working on their own to improve their game.
It is there, when they are doing more than they are asked, when they are calling upon themselves for motivation, that the seeds of victory are sewn.
It is there, Bob Huggins says, where this West Virginia University team is separate from previous teams, teams that won and won and experienced the fruits in the post-season, all the way to the Final Four.
This has been a difficult year for a coach as demanding and successful as Huggins, so much so that when it was pointed out to him that the schedule that lies ahead is a tough one, he could reply:
“When has it been easy?”
It was a rhetorical answer, the explanation about to come from the man himself, deflated as he was by a difficult loss to Notre Dame.
“You have to find a way,” he said.
Last year’s team, he noted, did just that, and he knew why it did succeed while this edition was having so much trouble, caught up in a stretch of four losses in five games.
“I love Cam Thoroughman to death,” he said, referring to last season’s center. “We were playing a 6-5 center who couldn’t shoot in Cam, you know, but he did everything else for us. He knew what he was doing, so I could make adjustments with him. Now, I can’t make adjustments, and that’s frustrating.
“Mazzulla,” Huggins continued, referring to point guard Joe Mazzulla, a revered Mountaineer player. “We all act like Mazzulla was John Stockton. He wasn’t. He played hard. He had great will but, you know what, what I give those guys credit for, if you walked in here during the day and those two guys were shooting free throws.
“Cam Thoroughman? He was an awful free-throw shooter, but he was in here every day working on it,” Huggins was going now. He lowered his voice, emphasized every word in almost a whisper that you had to learn forward to hear.
And everyone leaned forward.
“They … wanted … to … win,” he said.
This, it turns out, was something he had just finished telling his team. Now the lecture to the media was the same lecture he gave his players.
“I don’t see the freshmen in there all day. I don’t understand it. I didn’t shoot the ball in college, but I was in here working at it. I told these guys, I was the second all-time leading scorer in Ohio when I got out of high school, but I didn’t shoot it in college. All they said to me here was pass the ball, pass the ball.”
So that was what Bob Huggins did.
“I want to win,” he explained. “Whatever the coach said to do,
I did. We’ve had guys like that. We still do. You come in here and KJ (Kevin Jones) is in here and Truck is here and they are playing 40 minutes a game. Deniz has been much better lately … and I’m talking about much better in listening and doing what I ask him to do in terms of coming to practice to get better.”
Indeed he has, the big Turk who plays in the post.
Since the St. John’s and Syracuse games, when he was a non-factor with four and five points, he has scored 12, 22 and 16 because he watched filmed, listened to Huggins and corrected what he had done wrong.
Yes, he was now listening to Huggins, and you could tell it as he met with the media mob after the Notre Dame game, speaking totally openly.
“Last year’s team was kind of similar to the team that went to the Final Four,” he said. “Cam just knew his role and did what he could do. Joe was one of the important guys on the road to the Final Four. John Flowers improved a hell of a lot his last year. We had Casey Mitchell as a sharpshooter.
“This year is different. Instead of Flowers, we have (freshman) Keaton (Miles). He’s not John Flowers. I’m not saying he can’t be John Flowers, but he’s a freshman. He’s undersized. He has to work on things. A.B. (Aaron Brown) is not a Casey Mitchell,” he said.
Think about that for a moment when you begin to wonder what happened to the Mountaineers this year.
“Sometimes,” Kilicli admitted, “several months into the season, we still don’t know the plays.”
But worse than that, there is that work ethic that is lacking, the ethic Huggins talks about and that Kilicli now has adopted.
“Here’s my point of view on this. In this state there is nobody else. There is no pro team. They love us,” he said. “Half of those guys are coming here from southern West Virginia. It’s about two, three hours and they come here for the game. I know how much we mean to the people of West Virginia.
“They go into the coal mines, and they work hard for what they get. When the ball goes on the ground, we have to dive for it. You will not get hurt if you dive. But sometimes we don’t, and when we don’t play hard it is bad, really bad. It is disrespectful to the people of West Virginia, and I apologize for what we did.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.