By Tim Goodenow for MSNsportsNET.com
April 2, 2010
INDIANAPOLIS – College basketball coaches across the country spend countless hours teaching and evaluating players, breaking down practice and game film, scanning over stat sheets and scouting reports, all in the effort to find a team’s tendencies.
When those tangible items are accounted for, it’s often the other, more intangible traits that determine a team’s ultimate success.
Every coach wants it; fewer coaches can explain it – team chemistry.
It is team chemistry that has been the defining trait at the forefront of West Virginia’s magical run to the Final Four.
The ingredients include a roster full of unselfish players, a tight-knit group of guys on and off the court combined with a calming influence from its leader.
“Chemistry is so important and our team chemistry has never been better,” said All-American Da’Sean Butler, who has been a part of more WVU wins (107) than any other player in school history. “We have a lot of players who step up on different nights and nobody cares who gets the credit. We see a win as a team win and a loss as a team loss.”
Kevin Jones, one of WVU’s most consistent players this season, shares Butler’s sentiments.
“It’s just a great bond from being around each other so much and focusing on the same goal,” said Jones. “This team has chemistry like nothing I’ve ever been a part of before. I really can’t explain it.”
Perhaps it stems from a brother-like bond developed from hours and hours together after a seemingly neverending routine of basketball since practice began back in October.
“We all have similar personalities in a way,” offered Jones. “We all like to have fun and we are constantly around each other. I say all the time that you can’t be on this team if you can’t take a joke. That is part of the team’s make-up.”
While each player might consider himself a prankster, each also seems to have an defining characteristic.
Take John Flowers for instance. The energetic junior, formerly known for his pre-game huddle performance, now creates laughs by filming skits on his video camera.
“I like to have a good time. You can’t take things too seriously,” grinned the Waldorf, Md., native. “The game of basketball is supposed to be fun and I just have as much fun as I can.”
The bonding experience has increased as the season has progressed, to the point where many players welcome leaving their Morgantown homes.
“I can’t wait. It’s almost as fun as the games,” said junior Joe Mazzulla of hitting the road with his teammates. “We’ll be laying around and joking in the hotel room and all of a sudden have to go play a game. And the bus and plane rides are hilarious.”
Deniz Kilicli, a freshman center from Istanbul, Turkey, could have been an easy target because of language barriers with his Mountaineer upperclassmen. Yet, the bold Kilicli is quick to fire back jokes at his teammates.
“We teach him almost too much slang,” laughed Jones. “Deniz is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. He has adapted so well to this team and fits in like just another piece of the puzzle.”
Despite the laidback approach, the Mountaineers have gotten down to business to keep their successful season alive.
“I’ve told them I want them to have fun. I want them to enjoy the experience,” said head coach Bob Huggins. “They are smart guys. They know when it’s time to go to work.”
And the work has taken place. West Virginia’s 31 victories are a school record, breaking the mark of 29 wins set by the 1958-59 team. The 31 wins also tie Huggins’ career best for most wins in a season since his 2001-02 Cincinnati team went 31-4.
This Mountaineer season has been different though. They have had their share of highs and lows along the way, all in the quest to win the school’s first national championship.
You may recall all-Big East forward Devin Ebanks missed the first three games of the season for violating team rules. Then, WVU played without Kilicli, who was suspended by the NCAA for the first 20 games of the season for playing on a team in Turkey that included a professional player. Less than two weeks ago, sophomore guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant suffered a broken bone in his right foot during practice.
Nonetheless, the Mountaineers never panicked. The relationships and trust forged over the past five months taught them not to.
“The making of this team is very special,” said assistant coach Billy Hahn. “I give Huggs so much credit for that. He is such a calming influence when something happens.
“For instance, instead of making a huge deal of Truck’s broken foot, he just moved on and never panicked. He doesn’t dwell on the negative, he looks for a positive to even it out. Sure, we felt bad for Truck, the whole team did. But it is what it is. The team has to continue to move on and Huggs is great at recognizing that.”
That calmness and confidence has become viral to Huggins’ players.
“We do take on his attitude sometimes,” said Mazzulla. “We know that if our coaching staff isn’t panicking, there is no reason for us to panic. He doesn’t make anything bigger than what it is, so neither do we.”
“Unforeseen things like that are going to happen,” said Butler. “You can’t get mad or upset, you just have to figure it out. We don’t run away from the situation. We’re a family and we take it head on. And that is why we are here in the Final Four.”