Huggins Still Looking For Leaders
“I’ve always had people step up and lead,” he said. “We’ve always stressed a family atmosphere - which we certainly have. Our guys know how many of the Cincinnati guys come back here and hang out and try to help and talk to them and counsel them. Then some of the guys we’ve had the past three years and some of the other guys, they try to help them as well.”
It seems as if the team has been taking two steps forward and one step backward all season. After a 5-1 start, the Mountaineers were able to recover from their loss at Miami in early December by running off three straight wins. Later, a two-game losing streak to begin conference play was followed by four straight victories - one on the road at nationally ranked Georgetown and another at home against eighth-ranked Purdue.
Then, West Virginia couldn’t throw ball in the ocean in a 75-71 loss to Marshall last Wednesday night in Charleston. After that game the players met on the bus to try and get things straightened out.
“I’m in favor of really anything that brings them together because the truth of the matter is it’s so much easier to achieve your goals if you’re all rowing in the same direction,” Huggins explained. “If you get out there in the boat and you’ve got a couple guys rowing in the wrong direction they just screw everything up.”
Huggins recalled sage advice he once received from legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian about the importance of team leadership.
“I had Tark come in once and talk about his great teams and he said your team is really good when your best player is your hardest worker and your team leader, and that’s what they had with Larry Johnson,” said Huggins. “That’s what I had with Kenyon (Martin) and Da’Sean (Butler). I can remember saying to Da’ after the Mountain State game when he got 36 or 37 and he’s running around apologizing to everybody - I said, ‘Come here man. Nobody expects you to get that many a game but you’ve got to lead and the first thing you have to do is you have to lead by example.’
“The problem is when you don’t set a great example yourself you can’t be a leader, so we’ve kind of struggled with that. Obviously the guy to lead us is KJ from a work standpoint and from a player's standpoint, and he’s trying. He’s just not very vocal.”
Basketball is a sport that requires synergy and if all of the parts don’t fit, then things are just not going to work. Those are things college basketball’s 20th-all-time winningest coach is still trying to sort out.
“I told them before the (USF) game if you don’t love it … this is too hard,” he explained. “If you don’t love basketball and you don’t love competing you need to play the fiddle or do something else because this is too hard. Guys that don’t want to have teammates need to play golf and tennis.
“There are some tennis guys that could have never stayed on a team, but they were pretty successful on their own,” Huggins added. “When you are a member of a team you’ve got responsibilities to other people.”
West Virginia is down to eight scholarship players for Wednesday night’s game at Louisville with the apparent departure of sophomore forward Danny Jennings and the indefinite suspension of senior guard Casey Mitchell.
Mitchell started Sunday’s game against USF, scoring 13 points and grabbing a season-high 14 rebounds. Mitchell is averaging a team-best 16.6 points per game and has had some outstanding games this season (31 against Vanderbilt win, 27 versus Minnesota and 28 at Georgetown) and he’s also had some not-so-good games (6 against Robert Morris, 2 versus Duquesne and 6 just nine days ago against Purdue).
Jennings has averaged just 8.6 minutes in 14 appearances this season, scoring 29 total points and grabbing 35 rebounds.
On Wednesday against the Cardinals, Huggins could use a starting lineup that consists of Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla in the backcourt with Kevin Jones, John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman at the three forward spots.
Off the bench, West Virginia has one big (Deniz Kilicli), one guard (Jonnie West) and one swing player (Dalton Pepper) available with extensive playing experience. If Huggins chooses to go deeper than that then it will be with a non-scholarship player.
Flowers has been playing well of late, scoring a career-high 24 against Providence on Jan. 13 and reaching double figures in each of his last four games to boost his season scoring average to 9.7 points per game. Flowers had made 24 of his last 36 shot attempts from the floor.
Jones is averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but is coming off a 6-for-15 shooting performance on Sunday against USF despite having several good looks at the basket.
“KJ generally makes those shots around the basket that he missed,” said Huggins. “We got pretty good shots. It wasn’t that we didn’t get good shots.”
Bryant, averaging 11.8 points per game, has also struggled to regain his shooting touch after putting up a season-high 25 at Marquette on Jan. 1. Since then, Bryant has made just 15 of his last 59 field goal attempts (25.4%), including a 1-of-6 performance against Marshall and 2 of 9 shooting against USF. Bryant moving over to Mitchell’s shooting guard spot may enable Bryant to focus more on his shooting stroke instead of worrying about getting others involved in the offense at point guard.
Louisville, too, has concerns heading into Wednesday night. The Cardinals (15-4, 4-2) are coming off a 72-67 loss at Providence last Saturday night when they shot just 44.6% from the floor and turned the ball over 18 times. Louisville also shows a home loss to Drexel back on Dec. 14 when it scored only 46 points. The Cardinals are 13-2 this season in the brand new KFC Yum! Center with Big East wins over Seton Hall, Marquette and St. John’s.
Louisville plays a three-guard lineup and is averaging 10.1 steals per game, which is first in the conference and fifth nationally.
Senior Preston Knowles leads the team in scoring with an average of 15.4 points per game; Peyton Silva (10.6 ppg.) and Chris Smith (10.0 ppg.) are also average double figures. Junior Terrence Jennings, who missed the last 10 minutes of the Providence game with a hip pointer, is expected to return to the lineup Wednesday against West Virginia. He is Louisville’s best inside scorer averaging 8.6 points per game.
With a shorter bench, West Virginia likely doesn’t want to get into a running game with Louisville. The Mountaineers were able to control the game on the defensive end of the floor Sunday against USF, holding the Bulls to 31.4% shooting from the field.
“We played really, really well defensively at times,” Huggins said. “That’s the best we’ve run the matchup and we did it for an extended period of time.”
A strong defensive effort and improved shooting will need to be on the menu for West Virginia at Louisville on Wednesday night and later this week at Cincinnati on Saturday.
“Obviously we want to go get two wins,” said Huggins. “We’ve played well at Louisville. We got down a couple of times but got back in the game. And we’ve been in both games at Cincinnati. We didn’t finish the games the way we need to finish the games, but we’re very capable of winning.”
Tipoff for Wednesday’s game is set for 7 p.m. MSN’s radio coverage (Tony Caridi, Jay Jacobs and Kyle Wiggs) begins with The Coliseum Countdown at 6:30 p.m. and can be heard on Sirius satellite radio channel 121, as well as on channel 141 on The Best of XM.
ESPNU (Carter Blackburn and LaPhonso Ellis) will televise the game nationally.
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