MORGANTOWN, W.Va — When the sports information director at West Virginia typed the press release announcing that junior college star Tarik Phillip had signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for Bob Huggins, he was careful to include one superlative from the 2013-14 season.
“He was the Jayhawk Conference Player of the Year in the Eastern Division,” according to the release.
On the surface, that seems sensible. Phillip once committed to South Carolina over other SEC programs. He had offers this time from the Mountaineers, Memphis and Oklahoma State, and Kansas visited before Phillip picked WVU. Surely he was a player of repute who had earned a share of accolades.
Not included in that 307-word proclamation? Phillip played 18 games. Eighteen.
He had to sit out the first 14 as he put together 12 academic hours at Independence (Kan.) Community College. Once he was eligible at the start of the second semester, he was dynamic. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Phillip averaged 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. He shot 55 percent from the floor and 38 percent form 3-point range and the Pirates were 16-2 with Phillip in the lineup.
“It wasn’t even a question that he was the best player in the league,” said Independence assistant coach Grant McMillan, who coached Phillip there and the year before at Howard (Texas) College.
From his first game (12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in a win against Brown Mackie) to the last (31 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in a triple-overtime loss to Northwest Kansas Tech in the Region IV quarterfinal), Phillip seemed to earn the distinction delivered to him at the end of the season.
“I’m biased, but he was the best,” McMillan said. “He won freshman of year and player of the year. He got honorable mention All-America, and he only played half the season. It’s unbelievable, and he should have won defensive player of the year in the league, too, but I don’t think they could give it all to one guy.”
Phillip was a redshirt freshman at Independence. He sat out at Howard the year before, and when the school changed coaches, Phillip changed schools.
But not before another oddity that’s come to define Phillip.
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WVU WILL be the sixth school Phillip has played basketball at since the journey began at Christ the King High School, in Middle Village, N.Y. Phillip, from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie, played one season there and then moved to Brooklyn College Academy. He led the team to the Public Schools Athletic League Class B city title as a sophomore.
“Going to a new high school and winning the city championship my first year,” Phillip said, “I think I got a little spoiled after that. It took me a little while to realize I was going to have to be more focused.”
Phillip didn’t play basketball as a senior because of an undisclosed reason. He took to the summer AAU circuit, started to make a name again with the Long Island Lightning and landed at Queen City Prep, in Charlotte, N.C.
“He was kind of an OK high school player,” McMillan said. “He wasn’t great. He was good. But he was really just a late-bloomer. He got to be really good in prep school. They had a really good team and he was a very big part of it.”
The prep school finished 37-7 and Phillip averaged 26 points and seven rebounds per game. The college attention returned and he committed to Frank Martin and South Carolina over offers from Mississippi and Mississippi State.
Phillip never made it, though, because he didn’t qualify academically. McMillan said Phillip and his parents appealed the ruling, but were denied.
“Coming out of high school, I always thought I was going to make it,” Phillip said. “At that point, I actually thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen for me.”
That would be inconsistent with the fate of the Phillip family. His father is from Grenada and met his wife and the mother of their four children in her native England. They traveled to the United States and worked while they started and raised a family in Brooklyn.
“He comes from a great family,” Huggins said. “He comes from a very educated family.”
Tarik has an older brother and sister in college and a younger sister about to graduate from high school. He’s known to still remember home with spicy foods his father introduced and buttered sandwiches his mother often made, and there’s always time for tea.
“Sometimes people here make fun of me, but I love it,” he said. “I try to have some tea every day, usually more than one time a day.”
So Phillip soldiered on, and after the appeal delay he was wooed to Howard College, in Big Spring, Texas. McMillan was an assistant there and he and the people at Howard had known Phillip for a while because of relationships with Phillip’s trainer and his AAU program. McMillan said there was only a spot open because Howard tried and failed to land a few other players before Phillip.
He arrived after Christmas in 2012 during the school’s holiday recess. Howard was ranked in the top five in the preseason poll and McMillan admitted just about all of the attention went to the active players and not Phillip, The coaches knew he wouldn’t be eligible to play until the next season and after he’d passed 12 academic hours.
“Once we got him on campus, we started practicing and everyone realized it right away,” McMillan said. “We were all like, ‘Wow, this guy is good. He’s really good.’ I thought in that league, which is probably the best league in the country, that he was maybe the best guard that would be returning next season in that league.”
McMillan might be guilty of a bias again, but he wasn’t alone in his opinion.
Every July, the renowned Mullen’s Top 100 Junior College Showcase invites the best second-year players to a high-profile event in Missouri. Phillip earned an invitation in 2013.
“He hadn’t even played a game in junior college,” McMillan said. “That’s unheard of, but that’s how good he was.”
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MCMILLAN AND Phillip moved to Independence the following season, independent of one another, though McMillan said the situation made the most sense for Phillip so he’d be comfortable with someone he knew in a critical year for his basketball future.
Phillip had to sit out the first semester as he passed another 12 academic hours, but he was able to practice and he continued to develop a reputation as a ferocious practice player.
“He’s a pit bull,” McMillan said. “You put him on the floor and he just competes. He competes at such a high level, but he’s an A-plus team guy, an A-plus in the locker room and an A-plus on the practice floor. Everyone loved playing with him in practice because he got them the ball. He just plays the right way.”
On their way to a 3-7 finish at the end of a season that ended with a 17-16 record, some of the Mountaineers said they weren’t having the best practices, that they developed some bad habits and that they didn’t listen to their coaches as much as they had earlier in the season.
Phillip figures to fix that because he sees a purpose to practice.
“I think that’s the mentality you’ve got to have any time you’re on that court,” he said. “If not, it’s like you’re out there running track. You’ve got to make your presence felt.”
His biggest contribution should be easier to see.
“He’s a lock-down defender, and he likes to play defense, which is rare,” McMillan said. “He does a lot of high-major things that you can’t teach. His help defense, he does stuff like he’s three steps ahead, and you can’t teach that.”
Phillip ranked No. 10 in junior college last season in steals and finished with 84 (4.7 per game). The Mountaineers consistently struggled guarding the ball on the perimeter, but Phillip could put a scare into some of WVU records for steals, something Huggins alluded to when he said the Mountaineers “look for him to be very instrumental in our quest to become a great defensive team again.”
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Phillip said. “I’ve always been a good defender. When I was young, there were times my offensive game would struggle. I worked at that, but my defense always stayed the same. As I got better on offense, my defense was still there. I know I can lack on offense, or at least I used to, but I’m not going to let you score on me.
“If I’m struggling on offense and I have zero points, I’m going to make sure you have zero points, too.”
If it is that which appealed to Huggins and assistant coach Larry Harrison, then trust the feeling was mutual. Phillip liked WVU’s proximity to his home, but he also like that his strengths matched what Huggins preferred, all the way to the finish. Kansas visited Independence the day after freshman center Joel Embiid declared for the NBA. That opened up a scholarship a day before Phillip traveled to WVU for his visit.
The Jayhawks never offered a scholarship, but Phillip said it wouldn’t have mattered if they did.
“I knew how my recruiting was going to go in the very beginning,” said Phillip, who declined offers from smaller schools before the start of the past season. “Then it was pretty much set in stone when Bob Huggins came to see me. Bob Huggins doesn’t come out to see everybody — he’s only one of the top-three winningest active coaches. It was a no-brainer when he told me I had the opportunity to help. He’s a pretty sound dude defensively.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.