First Among Equals
Saturday night on his post-game radio show following West Virginia’s somewhat ho-hum performance against VMI, Huggins was in a story telling mood, so he told one about Jerry Tarkanian once explaining his coaching philosophy to his basketball team.
“Tark really simplifies a lot of stuff for you,” Huggs began. “He said what this is is pie, and everybody is going to get a piece of this pie. Don’t worry about it. I’m going to make sure you all get a piece of this pie.
“But now let’s tell the truth - he had this guy Sidney Green from Brooklyn who was his best player – and he said, ‘Sidney is going to get a lot bigger piece than the rest of you. You might as well get used to it because I’m cutting the pie.’”
The point Huggins was making is that there is a certain pecking order in life, even in a society full of equals. In Latin the phrase is primus inter pares – first among equals – and right now senior guard Casey Mitchell has earned the right to stand at the front of the line.
“He’s going to make more shots,” said Huggins. “It’s very, very simple.”
Two years ago when Huggins signed Mitchell, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, he said there would be times when Mitchell would look like an All-American and then there would be other times when he would look like an albatross.
After a very ordinary season in 2010, it seemed to be more the latter. Casey had averages of 3.7 points and 0.9 rebounds per game and a 31.9 percent shooting percentage from the floor - the white belt on a team full of brown shoes.
Mitchell wasn’t used to the structure Huggins demands of his players both offensively and defensively, so he frequently sat and watched. But more importantly, he learned.
“We were hoping he could do it last year but he just didn’t understand how to play, and with the guys that we had, it was hard because he was constantly in their way,” said Huggins. “And defensively he just wasn’t any good.”
For Mitchell, so used to always being told that he was the best player on the floor, getting the exact opposite from Huggins was something he wasn’t accustomed to hearing.
“When I got here it kind of bothered me a little,” Mitchell admitted. “Every coach that recruited me told me I was going to play and I went in and played right away. Coach showed me a lot by sitting me down. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you still have to listen to him and give it your all and if you don’t he’ll sit you down, no matter if you are an All-American or not.”
Huggins was more succinct.
“We hold them accountable,” he said. “I think a lot of times guys that have (Casey’s) ability sometimes aren’t held as accountable. I think he probably went through that more than others. Devin (Ebanks) came in, and Devin was very highly rated, but Devin played two years for Jerry Quinn (at St. Thomas More School in Connecticut) and Jerry holds people accountable.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to do things right off the floor, too,” Huggins said. “You can’t be late to class - you can’t miss class and do those kinds of things. They almost know during practice that the shoe is going to fall sometimes. I think Casey has learned to be more accountable in all areas of his life.”
Mitchell admits he took it upon himself to work harder last summer to fix his deficiencies - whether it be his defensive shortcomings or using his teammates more frequently to get open shots. Huggins has noticed a marked improvement in Mitchell’s overall approach so far this season.
No one is better than Huggins at instilling the importance of being multifaceted. If you are a good shooter then also become a good ball handler. If you are a good rebounder then also become a better passer … so on and so forth.
“I don’t give them a lot of absolutes,” Huggins explained. “I try and teach them how to play basketball and I think in the end you are better off for it because you have more guys who can pass, more guys who can handle the ball and more guys who understand how to play.”
Huggins has coached 22 players that went on to the NBA and he pointed out that all of them had some sort of shortcoming that they had to overcome during their college careers.
“I’ve never had a franchise guy,” Huggins said. “Kenyon (Martin) got franchise money because he defended and did those other things, but I’ve never had an offensive guy who was a franchise guy.
“My guys had to play off of other people,” Huggins said. “They weren’t the guy and they never were going to be the guy. What we did was we helped them understand how to play - helped them understand how to do those things.”
Casey Mitchell is beginning to understand those things - take Saturday’s 82-66 victory over VMI, for example. Mitchell was 2 of 6 from 3-point distance against the Keydets yet he still finished with a game-high 25 points. Why? Because he used his teammates to help him get open shots instead of trying to get offense on his own.
“The majority of what he got was curls - which I couldn’t get him to curl last year,” Huggins said. “He just chased the ball.”
Mitchell is also improving in other areas. Once a liability on the defensive end of the floor (a nagging knee injury last year certainly didn’t help matters) Mitchell is now becoming an asset there as well, actually pointing out before one practice last week that good defense can lead to even more offense.
“Defense gets you in a groove,” he said. “Once you get a steal it kind of puts you into the game a little more, and you feel good about taking the next shot.”
Huggins believes Mitchell, now averaging a team-best 21.4 points per game, has the ability to maintain his high scoring rate if he continues to use his teammates.
“If he uses screens they are going to have a hard time taking things away from him,” Huggins explained. “All they can really do is try and switch everything, and if they do that then we’re going to end up with mismatches.”
The trick, according to Huggins, is for West Virginia to continue to run offense instead of standing around and waiting for Mitchell to make shots.
When that happens – and it will, considering Huggins’ long track record of success – everyone will benefit, especially Mitchell, who entertains NBA aspirations.
“(Huggins) wants the best out of you and that’s why I spent the whole summer here rehabbing so I wouldn’t have to worry about any excuses in my last year,” Mitchell said. “I feel I have nothing to lose but just play my hardest every night.”
If he continues to do that, Casey Mitchell will get even bigger slices of the pie.
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