NEW YORK - For the better part of the final stage of this regular season, Bob Huggins would leave his locker room after a game and leave his players feeling pretty bad about a reality he was forcing them to accept.What other choice did the West Virginia basketball coach have, really, since many of those players weren't willing or able to accept it on their own?And so there were the stinging words and reviews after losses at home to Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville and a historically long conversation behind closed doors after a 27-point defeat at Notre Dame.Then there was the unforgettable postgame press conference after a loss to Marquette when Huggins all but washed his hands and vowed to change the roster next season.Yet things are changing around the Mountaineers and they come here with their first winning streak since the middle of January. They enjoyed a relatively easy win against DePaul and smiled big smiles as Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant combined for 50 points on Senior Night.Four days later, a defensively challenged team returned to its roots and outguarded defense-driven South Florida to give the Bulls their second home loss of the season.After that win, the one Huggins believes guaranteed the Mountaineers will be included in next week's NCAA Tournament and the one that made the first-round bye in this week's Big East Conference tournament here possible, Huggins was asked if his players are beginning to feel better about themselves."The heck with them," he said. "I feel better."Perhaps nothing matters more, particularly if the Mountaineers have opened their ears and accepted his message and found their identity. Coaches know, especially ones that have been doing this for 30 years and more than 700 victories.
That's what made Huggins' dour dismissals after losses so alarming. He wasn't pouting. He was prophesizing. The words and the emotions are different now.WVU is a good team that can play degrees above that - and below that - and win some postseason games. It starts at noon Wednesday when WVU (19-12) plays the winner of today's noon game between ninth-seeded Connecticut (18-13) and last-place DePaul (12-18).The Mountaineers aren't as talented as a bunch of the teams here and can't match up with, say, the Huskies. They're better than some teams in this field and can expect to get by and go farther than teams like the Blue Demons.WVU is, quite appropriately, the No. 8 seed in this 16-team conference tournament. Good, not great. Better than many, not as good as others. Yet the Mountaineers can win games and they seem to realize that and realize how now to do it.
"As long as we play together, we're a tough team to beat, which is what I've been saying the whole year," senior Kevin Jones said.Jones ought to be the conference player of the year, and he'll learn today if he is, but he's not enough by himself to carry WVU deep in any tournament.
He'll need help.He'll need Truck Bryant to play consistently. He'll need a third scorer, be it Deniz Kilicli or Jabarie Hinds or even a freshman surprise, to contribute. He'll need the rest of a thing team to play big games.In essence, he'll need everything from everyone. He'll need them to continue to play together, which is something they've done the past two games. Small sample, to be sure, but it has to start somewhere.Huggins was pretty sure his team had something last Friday before it left campus for USF."I felt like we had as good a practice as we'd had in months," Huggins said. "And I told them. I said, 'Fellas, I think we're going to go down there and win.'"Then they did, overcoming an awful time shooting the ball by making free throws and taking charges and blocking shots and talking care of the ball and outrebounding a bigger opponent. Eight Mountaineers played. Seven scored and did something to positively affect the outcome.
Afterward, they allowed themselves to relish the reality. Huggins talked to his team after the game, the one USF's people had billed as the biggest since the school last made the NCAA Tournament in 1992, and knew the mood was different when he left the locker room."Those guys were actually in there laughing about the biggest game in 20 years and $10 tickets," Huggins said.This is a foreign feeling for WVU. Forget that the Mountaineers haven't won a lot of games lately and haven't had many occasions to laugh. They just haven't had that personality or displayed that attitude throughout the season, almost like they weren't sure who they were, never mind if they should actually do that.And now, at the end of a season and a stressful stretch run, they're winning and grinning."With everything else going, of course we felt a little more urgency than we had in the past," Jones said. "It was a lot of pressure, but we came out and responded these last two games and we played well."Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com
or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.