Ron Cook: Bob Huggins gets the most out of players
March 7, 2016 12:00 AM
Raymond Thompson/Associated Press
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins gives his players instructions during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
West Virginia should climb higher in the top 10 today when the final regular-season college basketball polls are released. The Mountaineers aren’t Bob Huggins’ best team. That was his Kenyon Martin-led Cincinnati club in 2000. But this West Virginia team has a chance to go much deeper in the NCAA tournament, perhaps all the way to the Final Four.
“I think a lot of that has to do with who you play and what they’re good at doing and if they’re not good at doing what we do,” Huggins said. “But, yeah, I think we could if everything falls the right way.”
West Virginia finished second behind Kansas in the Big 12 Conference — the toughest league in Division I – after winning Saturday at No. 19 Baylor. The Big 12 should send seven teams to the NCAA tournament. “That’s 70 percent of our league,” Huggins said. “That’s never been done.”
West Virginia will play the Texas Tech-TCU winner Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. It should be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, depending on your favorite bracketologist.
Huggins has been to the Final Four twice, taking Cincinnati in 1992 and West Virginia in 2010. He has made it to the Final Eight four times. His 2000 Cincinnati team was eliminated in the second round after Martin’s right leg was broken in the Conference USA tournament.
“That was my best team,” Huggins said.
This West Virginia team isn’t that strong, but, clearly, it’s one of Huggins’ favorite clubs.
“These guys love to practice and love to play. That makes it easier to coach. I’ve had teams that don’t like to practice and don’t like to play. That wasn’t any fun at all. That’s when you start contemplating retirement and being out in a boat someplace, trying to outsmart a fish …
“These guys keep me young. They’ve got a great propensity to rally and keep competing. Their will to win is pretty good.”
What Huggins has done at West Virginia — this will be his seventh trip to the NCAA tournament in nine seasons — is remarkable. There’s still a stigma attached to West Virginia. Many look at it as too rural, almost backwoods. It’s wrong and it’s unfair.
“Morgantown has grown. It’s about 10 times bigger than when I was in school here,” Huggins said. “It certainly has everything you need, but, to a degree, I still think we fight perception.”
Making Huggins’ job more difficult is that there are few high schools in West Virginia. That means fewer players to recruit. When West Virginia was in the Big East Conference, it recruited in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. It’s much harder to get those players to come into the Big 12.
“In my nine years here, we’ve probably had three [West Virginia] guys who were recruitable at this level,” Huggins said. “Unfortunately, I’ve never been at a place where I can select the way some guys do. We have to take what we think are good prospects and try to put them in a place to be successful.”
To say Huggins, 62, has done just that would be selling him short. He’s ninth on the all-time wins list among Division I coaches with a 789-319 record. He ranks third among active coaches behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim.
“I don’t think there are five coaches in the country better than him,” West Virginia legend Jerry West has said. “He’s equal to any of them.”
It’s easy to say Huggins wins because of his willingness to adapt to his personnel. This West Virginia team, like last season’s squad which went to the Round of 16 in the NCAAs before being eliminated by Kentucky, plays relentless, full-court pressure defense and rebounds ferociously, especially on the offensive glass. It averages more than 21 points per game off turnovers and more than 17 second-chance points.
“We don’t shoot it great so we’ve got to get more shots than our opponents,” Huggins said.
But the real reason West Virginia wins is Huggins’ ability to get the most of out of his players. He can be tough, even abusive at times, yet his players love him.
In a game at Pitt in 2008, Huggins benched star player Joe Alexander on a timeout, calling him, to be polite here, “a piece of garbage.” Alexander, who became a No. 1 NBA draft choice, shrugged it off, saying, “He does it because he cares about us.”
In a recent interview on 93.7 The Fan, I asked Huggins why he thinks players are so devoted to him. He mentioned his “effervescent personality,” then turned serious. “Guys want to get better. I mean, do I get mad at them some days? Yeah. Do they get mad at me some days? Sure. But at the end of the day, they know, one, I care about ’em, and they know, two, I’m trying to make ’em the best they can possibly can be. When you think about it, who can get mad at any of that?”
Certainly not Da’Sean Butler, star of Huggins’ 2010 Final Four team. He blew out his left knee in the national semifinal loss to Duke. The sight of Huggins’ cradling his head in both hands as Butler writhed in agony on the court was one of the great scenes of that or any Final Four. It showed a softer side of Huggins, a more human side. It showed how much he really does care about his players.
“He told me he loved me and that I was a special kid,” Butler said.
At that moment, everyone knew the truth. Butler wasn’t the only special person in that picture.
Ron Cook: email@example.com and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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