Despite wins, Huggins still not satisfied
MORGANTOWN - Were it not for the very nature of coaches - all coaches, not just West Virginia's - Bob Huggins might find himself content with what his Mountaineers have accomplished through the first 20 games of the season.
West Virginia is, after all, 15-5 despite playing what is statistically regarded as one of the most difficult schedules in the country with a roster that includes only three players with significant college experience and five freshmen playing crucial roles in what has pretty much become an eight-man rotation.
After Saturday's 77-74 overtime win against Cincinnati at the Coliseum the Mountaineers were No. 11 in the unofficial Rating Percentage Index rankings with a schedule rated No. 2 in the country. They are also 5-2 in the Big East and tied for third place, just a half-game back of 6-2 Georgetown - over which WVU owns a tie-breaker - and a game-and-a-half behind top-ranked Syracuse, 7-1 after falling at Notre Dame on Saturday.
So, is content the right word? Of course not.
"No, I think we should have beaten Baylor,'' Huggins said. "All we had to do was make a free throw.''
Indeed, there have been games along the way that perhaps the Mountaineers should have won. The Baylor game in Las Vegas stands out, as does a loss at Connecticut in which WVU lost a double-digit lead. A home loss to Kent State perhaps would not happen again now that all those freshmen have gained experience, which leaves only poorly played games on the road at Mississippi State and Seton Hall gumming up the works. And those two teams are 16-4 and 15-4, respectively, so there's little shame in those losses.
Granted, there have also been wins along the way that could easily have been losses. The Mountaineers have played four overtime games this season and won three, including in two extra periods in a win over Kansas State.
All in all, though, WVU's season couldn't have gone much better than it has to date given all of that youth. Guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds seem to be always on the floor when games are on the line. Keaton Miles has started all 20 games. Aaron Brown and redshirt freshman Kevin Noreen combine to play nearly 30 minutes per game.
Yes, the core of the team is still Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli, but Huggins is fairly satisfied - if certainly not content - with the way the freshmen have worked their way in.
"We're getting better. We're getting better every time we go out there,'' Huggins said. "But we play pretty good for a while and then we have those lapses where they don't do what they're supposed to do. But honestly, [against Cincinnati] we were supposed to double a ball screen and Deniz didn't double it. And then we were supposed to switch an out-of-bounds and K.J. didn't switch it. So it's not just them.
"But I think the thing everybody's got to appreciate is how hard they compete. They don't give up. They continue to compete.''
A big part of the reason the newcomers are playing so well now is because they were never allowed to slide gently into the college game.
That No. 2-ranked schedule includes eight of the 20 games played to date against teams in the Top 50 of the RPI and 13 of 20 against Top 100 teams. West Virginia is 9-4 in those games. The Mountaineers are also 2-3 against teams currently in the Associated Press Top 25.
None of which actually surprises Huggins because, quite frankly, he didn't know what to expect from this bunch.
"I honestly didn't know,'' Huggins said. "We did the schedule to make sure that our RPI and strength of schedule was good so that they'd have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. That's why they came here. And I think it helped us.
"If you don't play anybody in the preseason schedule and then you have a game like [Cincinnati] and it's the first time, then guys have a tendency to panic. We've been in a bunch of them and I think it helps you, especially when you're young. When you're older you should know better anyway, but when you're as young as we are, I think it helped us.''
Things don't get much easier, either. On Wednesday, the Mountaineers face the only Big East team with a losing overall record, St. John's (8-11, 2-6 Big East), but it's on a stage most of the freshmen have never experienced - Madison Square Garden.
Then comes a game at No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday before the seventh turnaround of two days or less this season and a Big Monday home game against arch rival Pitt.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.