WVU needs to show its nasty side
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Deniz Kilicli sat in a folding chair just outside West Virginia's locker room at the Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, late Wednesday night. He pounded one meaty fist into another meaty palm time and again as he spoke, and the sound was such that even in the noisy, cramped hallway, others turned to stare.
Were your knowledge of WVU's basketball team limited to events of the past two months, it would be logical to assume Kilicli, the Mountaineers' 6-foot-9, 260-pound center, was striking fist to palm in frustration. After all, frustration is largely what this season has been made of.
This was different, though. This time Kilicli was simply making a point, one that perhaps he and his teammates finally have come to acknowledge after hearing Bob Huggins preach it incessantly.
"That's what we do. We just hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em,'' Kilicli said, hammering his fist each time for emphasis. "Eventually they just get tired of it and quit fighting.''
Through much of the first two months of the season, the "they'' that got tired and quit fighting was the Mountaineers themselves. Wednesday night in Austin, it was the opponent.
That West Virginia managed to erase a 10-point deficit in just over three minutes at the end of regulation and then stun Texas in overtime, winning 57-53, was almost secondary to how the Mountaineers managed to accomplish it.
Oh, the win can't be overstated, of course. Just count the various demons that were exorcised, including an inability to win on the road, to win in the Big 12, to make shots when it counts (even if almost every other shot was missed). Just when the Mountaineers seemed on the verge of becoming wholly irrelevant after just two games in their new league, they are suddenly a team no one wants to play.
But it's not that West Virginia accomplished all of that that's nearly as significant as how it did so. Quite simply, the Mountaineers overcame all their obvious flaws and weaknesses and relied on the one thing that Huggins realized some time ago would be the only thing that might save this team. It's the same thing that's saved every under-talented group he's ever coached.
They have to be tough and nasty and relentless in everything they do, and they have to be that way for 40 minutes. No exceptions. That's been Huggins' mantra since he arrived five-plus seasons ago and - without a Joe Alexander, a Da'Sean Butler, a Kevin Jones to come to the rescue - it's even more important now.
"The deal is that the three years I've been here before this one, we've always found a way,'' said Kilicli, the only player on the roster who's been around that long. "Some days you're not going to shoot the ball well. Some days you're going to start awful, like 15-0 or something. But you can always find a way.''
If West Virginia is going to even win more games than it loses this season, the Mountaineers have to take that to heart, as they did Wednesday night. Time and again this team has proven the things it can't do, which includes most of the sexy things that good teams do, like shoot and score or run great offensive sets or overwhelm people on the boards or on defense. Maybe it happens in spurts and will happen again, but based on a 14-game sample it's not going to happen consistently.
No, this team just has to keep trying and wearing down opponents, like your 6-year-old asking "Are we there yet?'' for the 400th time. Eventually you wish you weren't even in the car, or, in this case, the game.
That was the case with Texas Wednesday night. That doesn't reflect well on the Longhorns, of course, and not all teams will cave like they did. But it's really the best, perhaps only option for a West Virginia team that does none of those sexy things. It will win only if it fights.
"When the game went to overtime I was like, 'We've got it,' '' Kilicli said. "They weren't going to fight anymore.''
Afterward, Huggins talked about what has really become this team's mantra from here forward, which is "Find a Way.'' It's something he borrowed from one of his Cincinnati teams - actually the one that would lose to WVU on Jarrod West's banked 3-pointer in the NCAA tournament in Idaho in 1998.
A manager on that team, Joe Roberts, texted Huggins Wednesday with those three words. That year they ended up carved in wood and found a spot in the team luggage, players tapping it before each game as if it were Notre Dame's "Play Like a Champion" sign. Expect it on a T-shirt near you soon.
"That's what I told that [Cincinnati] group, that somehow, some way we have to find a way to win,'' Huggins said. "And if Ruben Patterson blocks Jarrod West's half-court shot, maybe we're in the Sweet 16 with a chance to advance.''
Well, this team is a long, long way from any Sweet 16. At 8-6 it will be an uphill climb just to make a sixth straight NCAA tournament.
But if there's any chance at any success this season for WVU, it will come through finding that way with a team that has precious few conventional options. Fighting to the death and wearing opponents down is about the only way to go.
Again, that's always been a Huggins refrain, but without much else this year it has to be the solo act.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.