WVU basketball: Huggins looking for his 7-8 guys
MORGANTOWN - Considering how coaches and the players who remain are reluctant to discuss the distractions and obstacles they've encountered lately, don't expect West Virginia to ever admit this:
Compelling evidence suggests everything Mountaineer basketball has been through is everything they needed.
"I think it's a stretch to say I wanted it, but I've never been one to run," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "That's kind of what I told them. When people think you can't do something, that's a great time to do things."
His Mountaineers had problems and limitations this season ... and that was before freshman forward Kevin Noreen's season-ending surgery, Dan Jennings's desertion and leading scorer Casey Mitchell's suspension left Huggins with just eight scholarship players.
Only seven have played the past two games. So, for now, WVU has seven or eight players - but has returned to the Associated Press media poll at No. 25 this week.
"Coach Huggins has told us all year he just needs seven or eight guys to go out and play for him," said senior Cam Thoroughman. "That's all he wants and he's had trouble finding that."
Well, thanks to a variety of trouble, that's all Huggins has right now. There's nothing the Mountaineers can do - at least until Mitchell does whatever it is he has to do to get back with the team - except adapt and advance.
Even when Mitchell returns and the team grows by one, it's still a small roster and Huggins will continue to focus more on halfcourt than fullcourt in practice and occasionally cut an hour or so off to keep legs fresh.
Yet WVU (14-6, 5-3) is a team that doesn't score much, and is better served guarding and rebounding and grinding out halfcourt offensive possessions.
That was the recipe late last season, when WVU ultimately won 10 in row, and this team has responded with two team-oriented performances.
It has happened quickly, too. WVU went 1-1 on a critical road trip - and could have easily been 2-0 - to position itself in a tie for fourth in the Big East entering Wednesday's 7 p.m. home game against Seton Hall (10-12, 4-6).
"With everything Huggs said, we didn't look at it as a negative," senior point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "He was excited. It starts with him and he could have panicked, but it's different to have a coach who stands there and thrives to get in that situation with his back against the wall and no choice but to fight out of it."
It's not that being asked to play a ranked Louisville (now in second place in the conference) and Cincinnati (it hadn't lost at home all season) was enough.
No, the shorthanded Mountaineers missed two free throws and lost to the Cardinals on a difficult layup with seconds to go and then found out they couldn't get home.
The airport in Clarksburg was closed and WVU was forced to stay in Louisville on Wednesday night and then bus to Cincinnati a day later. Thursday was an off day, as ordered by NCAA rules, which meant no practice.
The Cardinals opened the KFC Yum! Center for the Mountaineers and the players walked the mile or so to the arena to work out together under the guidance of Mazzulla, Thoroughman and fellow senior John Flowers.
"For those guys, this is it," Huggins said. "They don't want to go out on a bad team."
It's not limited to them, though.
There's Deniz Kilicli, who didn't attempt a shot against Louisville, then went 4-for-6 with two jumpers and seven rebounds against the Bearcats. There's Dalton Pepper, giving quality minutes like he hadn't before. There's Truck Bryant, taking sole ownership of the Louisville loss because his missed free throws gave the Cardinals the opening it needed, even though Bryant's mistake was one of many committed by many that led to the defeat.
There's Bryant, falling into an awful shooting slump and Mazzulla covering it up with 35 points the past two games. There's the 6-foot-7 Flowers, managing to lead the league in blocked shots (50) for a team that's blocked just 89. There's Thoroughman, thinking his way through the game to assist in any way necessary, be it picks, screens, rebounds, instructions or the occasional jumper.
"There's a bunch of them that kind of knew we needed some wins," Huggins said.
After playing the Pirates, who have won two in a row and always give WVU problems, the Mountaineers play seven of their final nine games against ranked opponents. There are two games against No. 4 Pitt, two Saturday-Monday quick turnarounds and games against unranked DePaul, which WVU beat by two points Jan. 4, and at Rutgers, which nearly beat the Panthers on Saturday.
"I don't want to harp on things and I don't like to talk about some things because they're not here and we are, but I think you find the best about people in adversity," Thoroughman said. "That's when people need to dig down deep and give what they've got.
"You find out who really cares and I think what we're finding out is we have some guys who are really good people and mean a lot to this team."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.