Gabe Osabuohien

The look on Gabe Osabouhien’s face reflects his competitive spirit. After defeating Oklahoma State Tuesday, the Cowboys’ coach Mike Boynton said, “I tell our guys we need a Gabe Osabuohien.”

MORGANTOWN — When West Virginia plays a basketball game you might notice the player wearing the No. 3 jersey, even though there are others putting the ball in the basket far more often than not.

You notice Gabe Osabuohien because of the floor burns on his knees from diving after loose balls. You notice him from the bruises on his back from hitting the floor falling backwards after taking two or three charges every game, each time getting WVU the ball for an extra possession.

You might notice him because on one possession he might get one or two deflections, maybe even a steal, doing it inside, outside, on a guard, on a big man. He’s everywhere, so you notice him as he trots by the bench his hand raised because he’s played himself to the point of exhaustion.

He is what you call a competitor, a player who pushes himself as far as he can push himself.

He is a Bob Huggins’ kind of player and he has always had a lot of them, about 912 wins worth. This year the team seems to filled with them, clutch players who dive for balls, take charges, run the court, block shots, make clutch shots.

You can’t miss it, really, which led me to ask Huggins in his post Kansas State victory interview what makes a clutch player. His answer, as it always does, winds its way down many roads and comes complete with a story that sums up what he means.

In this case his story had nothing to do with this year’s team, or last year’s, or the year before, but it summed up exactly what a clutch competitor is. It is from a recruiting trip he took to see guard Tarik Phillip at Independence Community College in Kansas and a conversation he had with Phillip’s coach, Tony Turner.

It certainly wasn’t Huggins’ first trip to Independence, having brought future NBA player Ruben Patterson to Cincinnati when he coached there. Phillip was the final part of his rebuilding the guard position at WVU when both Eron Harris and Terry Henderson transferred.

He joined a key class of guard recruits with a couple of guys named Jevon Carter and Dax Miles.

Anyway, this is the conversation he had with Tony Turner about Phillip that day, as Huggins tells it.

HUGGINS: “How does he handle the ball?”

TURNER: “Eh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t call him a ball handler.”

HUGGINS: “Well, how does he pass it?”

TURNER: “Eh, wouldn’t call him a passer.”

HUGGINS: “Then, can he shoot it?”

TURNER: “I wouldn’t call him a shooter.”

HUGGINS: “What does he do?”

TURNER: “Coach, he wins.”

Huggins continued the story this way:

“We walked into the gym and he looked around and said ‘You can pick any five you want and put the worst guys on his team and he’ll still win.’”

It was a done deal from there.

And now you know what Huggins saw in Osabuohien when he was leaving Arkansas.

You take individual skills and they matter only to a degree. It’s what they do with them.

Mike Boynton, who brought Oklahoma State into West Virginia and was soundly beaten on Tuesday, understands.

“I tell our guys we need a Gabe Osabuohien,” Boynton said. “That’s not a knock on any of our guys. All great teams have somebody like that who every now and then may jump up and have a game where they score, but they don’t place a high value on that personally because they know other guys are capable of doing that. They embrace the dirty work and blue-collar mentality.”

Huggins calls that “the will to win” and he indicates it’s really what he is looking for in his recruiting.

He wants winners who can play far more than players who play.

Maybe his favorite example of what he’s talking about was found on his Final Four team in 2010 in Cam Thoroughman.

“I never thought Cam would play for us because Cam always thought he was a guard,” Huggins said. “But it came down to we needed somebody who could guard (Luke) Harangody in the Notre Dame game, and he went in and did a terrific job and started from there on. We’re the only team in America to have a 6-foot-4 white guy playing center, and he did a terrific job.”

Harangody was Notre Dame’s Big East enforcer, but when he tangled with Thoroughman in the Coliseum it was he who hit the deck with a thud.

“A lot of it is inside, how much you compete and how hard you compete,” Huggins said.

Huggins says he doesn’t happen to stumble upon competitors while recruiting.

“We try to recruit to that,” he said. “You look for guys who want to win, who want to compete. That’s what we look for.”

“Devin Williams was here this weekend. Did you ever see anyone who wanted to get a rebound more than him? Why wouldn’t you recruit that guy? We recruited Dev hard.”

It’d be nice if everyone was as cool as Stephen Curry, but they aren’t.

“It’s not about how guys look. It’s about how they play. Sometimes you get carried away. You go in and this guy is dunking every which way on everyone and you say you got a great prospect, but at the end of the day he’s not. You want guys who do things when the lights go on,” Huggins said.

Although you have to find out about that in practice, as Huggins learned when he transferred to WVU from Ohio U.

“My first day here at the Coliseum, Coach (Sonny) Moran says, ‘OK, Mother Hen.’ I don’t know what ‘Mother Hen’ is. I’m standing there and everyone else runs to the other side of the circle.

I look over, there’s this guy standing there and he kind of smiles. He’s got like half his teeth. He said, ‘We’ll have some fun.’ And we went at it, just him and I beating the hell out of each other on the court while everyone else is trying to stay out of our way.”

Huggins had proven himself that first day.

“Well, when I came back to coach here, we had a deal over at Kegler’s and he comes walking up and says, ‘You won’t remember me.”

Huggins remembered him well, answering “You got teeth now.”

They both laughed. You remember the guys who aren’t worried about appearances, who aren’t worried about stats, who don’t worry about how their sneakers look, just how high they can jump in them.

They are the winners.

Follow @bhertzel on Twitter

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