By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins would never admit to having a favorite player, but you kind of sense that if the West Virginia University coach were to publicly anoint someone with that label it would be Dominique Rutledge.
It’s just a feeling, a sense he gives off when he talks about him, and a knowledge of those past teams Huggins had in Cincinnati of which he is so proud.
Rutledge would have fit there.
He’s rough. We’re not talking in the physical sense, although that fits, too, but in a development sense.
He gets himself in a jam occasionally, just as those Cincinnati players did, sometimes with the books, sometimes just not doing things the way Huggins demands. He’s missed some games, some of them not due to injury, but it’s never been anything major.
And the thing is, he can play as you may get a chance to see today when Radford comes into the Coliseum for a 4 p.m. meeting with the struggling Mountaineers, who will be trying to use this game to rise above the .500 mark at which they now stand.
Rutledge isn’t a smooth player, but he is the long, athletic type of player who isn’t afraid to muscle his way through games, which kind of reminds Huggins of himself muscling his way through life.
You won’t win games because of 20 points from Rutledge, but you won’t lose them because he won’t get on the floor after the ball or do something to ignite the crowd and the team.
Huggins put what he’s been putting together here this way following the Oakland game, which WVU rallied to win by five:
“When I came here we knew we would not have the five best players in our league, maybe not even close. But maybe we’d have the 10 best. We can wear people down. We can get out and pressure, make everything hard, make every pass down.”
He was talking about depth, about effort, about players who will fight through screens, who will battle on the boards and who will be in your face on defense.
Such a player is Rutledge, and while Huggins doesn’t start him, he wants him close at hand.
“I always wanted something in my hip pocket, someone who I can put in and change the game,” he said.
That describes Rutledge, who just isn’t consistent enough with what he does to play more than he is playing at present.
“You never know what you’re going to get from Dom. You just don’t know,” Huggins said. “I’m not saying anything we haven’t said to Dom. If Dom would be more consistent he would be a guy who could come in and change things with his athleticism.”
He had felt Deniz Kilicli was his game-changer.
“You know, we all thought Deniz could change things with his physical strength. To this point it hasn’t worked. I think it will. Deniz has started working at it,” Huggins said.
Then there’s Aaric Murray, a 6-10 gazelle-like athlete who relies on his jumping ability and timing rather than strength.
“Aaric is not as physical as Deniz and Dom, but he’s more skilled. He can step out and make a shot. We should have a pretty good combination there, but it’s hard when their power forward is 6-4 with ball skills. It makes it hard to play two of those guys together. They kind of make us play to them,” Huggins said.
So they all have their roles, with Murray showing glimpses of being the team’s most productive player while Kilicli goes through a puzzling shooting slump.
And Rutledge, he’s there when the situation calls for him.
“I don’t look at it as a spark. I just want to contribute any small way I can, whether it is grabbing a rebound, diving on the floor. I feel I have the energy to create that spark to set a screen or get a rebound,” he said.
In this last game, with the situation perilous, Rutledge contributed a pair of thunderous slam dunks that got the entire building revved up.
Rutledge’s dunks are always electric.
“It’s my signature thing,” he said.
If Huggins has this envisioned correctly, when he gets into conference play he will have all three players geared up and ready to count on inside – Kilicli, Murray and Rutledge – each different in his own way, each skilled at what he does.
Big 12 play is rapidly approaching with Oklahoma, ranked No. 18, right after the New Year, so today’s game against Radford becomes an important stepping stone.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.