WVU basketball: K-State program shows strength against old coach
MANHATTAN, Kan. - At the root of what happened here Monday night, which was West Virginia's 10th consecutive loss to a ranked team and the 10th loss in 11 tries this season against an opponent in the RPI's top 100, was an awakening that occurred close to seven years ago.
Bob Huggins, who'd been bounced from the basketball court after an unhappy ending at Cincinnati and spent the 2005-06 season as a spectator, was hired to coach basketball at Kansas State.
Back then, this was a place with some history and plenty of potential, but a place that wasn't producing on the level Huggins projected. He believed in a return to glory, the sort of thing these Wildcats are pursuing with the best record in the Big 12 Conference after the 71-61 win against the Mountaineers before a crowd of 12,329 at Bramlage Coliseum.
His plan did not merely impress his audience that one day in the spring of 2006. It matched the vision of then-athletic director Tim Weiser, associate athletic director Casey Scott and former college coach Eddie Fogler, who was running the coaching search.
"At the end of the day I walk out saying, 'Wow. These guys understand. These guys are committed to doing the right things,'" Huggins recalled.
Huggins was wowed again in his first game back at the school he led to a 23-12 record and a NIT bid in the 2006-07 season to end an eight-year postseason drought. The Wildcats (21-5, 10-3 Big 12) led by a lot very early, made 10 of their first 16 shots and were never in danger with a lead as large as 22 points. The Mountaineers scored the game's final 10 points.
WVU (13-13, 6-7) inspired awe in other ways. Huggins, who was met with newspaper banners in the student section that read "There's no Huggin' in basketball," wasn't named when the arena's public address introduced teams and starters, a customary practice in the building that not even Huggins could transcend.
And then the game started and things got worse. Huggins pulled starter Kevin Noreen after 47 seconds. Eron Harris and Deniz Kilicli, the only two consistent scorers of late, joined him on the bench with two fouls before the second media timeout. A three-point play from Thomas Gipson gave KSU a 16-4 lead after 7:16 and put Kilicli on the sideline. He'd ultimately lead the team with 16 points and was the only player in double figures.
After 13 minutes, WVU had 13 shots, seven turnovers, 10 points and a 14-point deficit even as Huggins burned two timeouts to manage the disaster.
Kansas State already has its seventh straight 20-win season. There were none in the seven seasons before Huggins arrived. He started what his successor Frank Martin continued the next five years and what Bruce Weber has extended in his first season in the Little Apple.
The Wildcats are 14-1 at home, are two wins away from their best performance in the Big 12, very much alive for their first conference championship and a lock for their fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid and the fifth in six years. The Wildcats went 11 years without a NCAA bid before breaking through in 2008, the year Huggins left the cupboard stocked.
"He definitely changed the mindset and the culture of Kansas State basketball and helped energize it and Coach Martin took it to another level," Weber said. "We're hoping to continue that."
Huggins thought he might do that here, that he might be wearing purple inside the rowdy Octagon of Doom. Everyone was all smiles during his one season here. Huggins watched season tickets go from 6,500 the year before he arrived to 13,000 his first season - and the capacity is 12,528. He then landed the nation's top recruiting class with Mike Beasley, Will Walker and Jacob Pullen.
"From the minute I got here, they embraced me," Huggins said. "The people here are very much like West Virginia's people. I felt very much at home here."
That compliment was something of a conflict, too, because fate soon intervened like an official waving off a buzzer-beater in March Madness.
"I think I've said this a thousand times now," Huggins said, "but I would have never left Kansas State for any place other than coming back home to West Virginia."
He's headed for a second straight season with fewer than 20 wins, something that happened only three times in his first 26 seasons as a Division I coach, and might miss a postseason bid for the first time since 1988.
WVU has been in the postseason every season since 2004, but has five more games left against teams in the RPI top 55 that have already beaten WVU once this season. Monday night's performance didn't foster much faith.
There was a brief push at the end of the first half, which ended with WVU on a 10-5 run and down 33-20, but Kansas State opened the second half with a 13-2 run with help from a technical foul against Huggins as he finally protested too much about officiating that was sometimes interrupted by basketball. There were 49 fouls called.
"I thought the really frustrating thing was we couldn't make a damn shot," Huggins said.
The Mountaineers kept pushing and would get as close as 14 points a few times, but the game finally got away in one sequence. Harris fouled out with a personal foul and a technical foul for knocking over Will Spradling outside the 3-point line. Spradling made four free throws at the 9:24 mark on his way to a game-high 19 points. A three-point play from Rodriguez after a WVU turnover would put the Wildcats up 61-42.
KSU has arguably its best team since Lon Kruger coached Mitch Richmond to the Midwest Regional final in 1988. That was the school's third trip to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight since 1981, when Rolando Blackman led the Wildcats to the first of back-to-back trips.
Weber's first season has dusted off the aged memories of Final Four appearances in 1948, 1951, 1959 and 1964 and the sideline leadership of Hall of Famers like Jack Gardner and Tex Winter and eventual NBA general like Cotton Fitzsimmons.
"The great thing is when you build a program that's built to last," Huggins said. "I think that's what was done, but that's done not because of me or Frank Martin or anybody else. It's done because you have a university that's committed to winning and committed to doing things the right way."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.