MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In the end talent wins. That was the message Bob Huggins delivered on Friday before West Virginia’s NCAA tournament third-round game against Kentucky.
“If you look, historically the teams that win have great players,” Huggins said. “They have pros. They have first-rounders. They have lottery picks. And they make plays at the end of the game.”
Pro players? Check.
Making plays at the end of the game? Check.
Guard Brandon Knight was one of the top high school recruits in the country last year and he showed why against West Virginia, scoring 30 points to lead the 11th-ranked Wildcats to a 71-63 victory over the Mountaineers Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
Knight scored from everywhere on the floor – from deep, hitting his first two 3-point attempts of the game – inside, off the dribble, you name it.
Forward Terrence Jones is another tremendous talent with an ability to get shots close to the basket and keep balls alive on the rim. Jones scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but he was clutch late in the game when the Wildcats were able to overcome a 55-51 deficit with seven minutes remaining.
“I learned a long time ago when I started at Walsh College and I had these 6-foot-3 guys and I thought I could coach,” Huggins explained on Friday. “I was 26 years old and I thought I’d teach them to block out and do all the fundamental things.
“Well, what you find is at the end of the game, those 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9 guys go over those 6-foot-3 guys and rebound it every time, and I very quickly learned I’d better go get some players,” he said. “The coaching stuff was overrated, you know.”
One day Knight and Jones will be playing in the NBA, probably sooner rather than later the way freshmen seem to travel through John Calipari’s program. But that’s for Kentucky fans to concern themselves with.
Next season West Virginia must replace seniors Cam Thoroughman, John Flowers, Casey Mitchell, Joe Mazzulla and Jonnie West – all important contributors in different ways. Mazzulla and Thoroughman are among the craftiest and most intelligent players to ever suit up for the Mountaineers, and their court presence will be greatly missed.
“It’s hard for anybody to understand what Joe’s been through,” said Huggins. “I mean, he woke up every day for the better part of a year not knowing whether he’d ever play basketball again.
“Cam was recruited as a guard and he’s playing center,” said Huggins. “He’s physically overmatched every game. But he just competes and he knows how to play.”
Flowers developed himself into a versatile defender and a capable shooter, particularly from the free throw line where he turned a liability into an asset in less than a year’s time. Plus, Flowers was one of the few athletic players Huggins could put out on the floor.
“John Flowers has come a long way,” said Huggins. “John coming into this year was below a 50% free throw shooter. The last time I looked he was shooting 76%.”
West was the team’s shooting specialist who decided to come back for a fifth year.
“Jonnie West wasn’t going to play this year, and I asked him to come back out,” said Huggins. “And he said, ‘Coach if you need me I’m there.’”
And Mitchell was a streaky player who usually got his points in bunches. When things were going well he could score from anywhere on the floor - and in high-pressure situations such as against Vanderbilt and Louisville. But Mitchell, a junior college transfer, simply needed more time with Huggins.
“We’ve only had Casey for two years and would have liked to have been able to have him for four,” said Huggins. “I think we probably could have done a little more for him, but it is what it is.”
All five are competitors and that’s the reason they were able to overcome some of their physical limitations to win an impressive 21 games this year against arguably the most difficult schedule in school history.
“I think the thing that can be said for all those guys is they compete, they step to the plate and compete,” said Huggins.
Unfortunately, competing is only a portion of the formula needed for success. If you don’t believe me, go ask Pitt. There is no program in the country more competitive than the Panthers, and there is not a more successful program in the country with less to show for it than Pitt.
“I think the further you go in this tournament the better and better the players,” Huggins explained.
College basketball expert Ken Pomeroy uses a mathematical formula to evaluate a players’ value to his team. It’s too cumbersome to describe here, but the point is, as of Sunday morning, all 10 of his top players
are still alive in the NCAA tournament.
And when the tournament is pared to 16 teams next week, look for most of those still playing to be among the most talented teams in the country.