IT WAS A week ago when Deniz Kilicli sat slumped in a chair following a mid-morning loss to Kent State, bemoaning what he seemed to see as the sorry state of the West Virginia basketball program.All the wins and the NCAA tournament appearances and even the potential for national rankings seemed lost. In place of all of that was a team trying to find itself and seemingly unable to do so with freshmen outnumbering juniors and seniors by more than two to one.Yes, it was just one lousy defeat. It wasn't the end of the world. But you'd never have known that to listen to Kilicli."It's hard for freshmen to grow up this fast, but they have to,'' he said. "The season's already started. We can't be 15-15. We just can't.''Fast forward a week. In that time, the Mountaineers have completely outclassed two far-inferior teams. First there was a 35-point rout of Alcorn State. Then Tuesday night came an 83-48 laugher over Morehead State at the Civic Center.Granted, these aren't exactly giant steps. If West Virginia hadn't improved one iota after losing 70-60 at home to Kent State, the Mountaineers still were positioned to handle these two teams with ease. Even Kilicli understands that.Still, everything about his play and his attitude signaled something different Tuesday night. It started with his man vs. boys play in the early going that set the tone, continued even through his bizarre over-the-shoulder, no-look pass to, well, no one in the second half and to his demeanor when it was over.Especially the demeanor part."I'm really surprised that we're improving that fast, that quick,'' Kilicli said. "Two games ago I was really not happy. But I think they needed that. They responded pretty good. If they continue like that we'll be a dangerous team. We'll be a good team.''The "they'' Kilicli refers to, of course, are all those freshmen. They were on full display Tuesday night and for the most part were as inconsistent as the Civic Center clocks, which until the system was apparently rebooted at halftime often displayed three different times and a couple of different scores simultaneously.There was Jabarie Hinds with his five assists and three turnovers. There was Gary Browne, with 10 points, five assists, six rebounds and five missed free throws.
All of them, though, have shown enough in spurts to lead one to believe there is tremendous potential there. It's just a matter of getting them to show it more than occasionally.And maybe that's where Kilicli comes in. Maybe sitting there slumped in that chair a week ago was as much psychological as anything else.Kilicli won't deny that perhaps there was some theatrics involved."Me, [Kevin Jones] and Truck [Bryant] were really upset,'' Kilicli said. "And I guess that made us be more leaders. We had to talk more, talk to the freshmen and show them how we felt.
"Leaders happen in the time when things are really bad. And I think we've pulled it off pretty good so far. We don't know. It's the fourth game. But I think we're doing a good job so far.''
Regardless of how Kilicli is performing as amateur psychologist, he's doing a really good imitation of a monster in the middle. And that probably will have as much to do with West Virginia's success this season as anything else.Through those first four games, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound junior is averaging 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. Tuesday night he was right at those averages with 10 points and seven boards, even though he played just 20 minutes because of foul trouble. He came up huge in the early going, grabbing rebounds and playing in the post like everyone hoped he would when he arrived from Turkey two years ago.And then there was that no-look pass.It came about midway through the second half when he was stationed in the lane just inside the free-throw line. The Mountaineers had been playing a high-low game all night, but this probably wasn't what Bob Huggins had in mind. Aaron Brown was on the wing and Kilicli saw him out of the corner of his eye and rifled a pass behind his head.It hit nothing and sailed out of bounds.
"Yeah, I'm going to get that,'' Kilicli said. "I'm going to get it. Just watch me.''Here's the thing, though. Huggins didn't go off on Kilicli. Quite the contrary, in fact. At the next dead ball he replaced Brown."Yeah,'' Kilicli said. "Because he couldn't catch it.''Well, maybe. More likely it was just Brown's turn to come out.Still, just watching Kilicli try something as audacious as that leads one to believe that he's getting more comfortable with all those young players around him, unlike a week ago when he seemed so depressed over those same youngsters.By Tuesday night, he was all smiles, especially talking about that failed attempt at basketball wizardry."It was a blowout and I wanted to try it,'' Kilicli said. "It's the Tragic Johnson in me.''The Tragic Johnson?"Yeah,'' he said. "Sometimes I can't hold it back.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org