Mike Casazza: Huggins still trying to turn WVU into a winner
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The West Virginia men's basketball season might have taken a step closer Wednesday night to a conclusion not seen here since John Beilein's first season 10 years ago.
With Wednesday's loss to Baylor, WVU plummeted well below .500 in Big 12 Conference play with the final road games of the season in the next five days.
Yet Bob Huggins, without a losing record since 1986 and quite likely on the cusp of delivering his alma mater's first sub.-500 record since 2003, is still trying to get his Mountaineers pointed in the right direction.
"He's trying as hard as he can," said senior Deniz Kilicli, who knows and probably admires Huggins more than any player on the roster.
"He's a coach who's won all his life and I'm sure he's never had a season like this in his whole career. He's trying to find stuff for us."
This isn't new. Huggins has gone from his motion offense to a dribble-drive offense and back this season. He's leaned on groups of big and tall players and then short and quick players. He's had more lineups than the NYPD. And in the 65-62 loss to the Bears, who had lost three straight games since beating WVU by 20 points at home two weeks earlier, Huggins put two more changes into effect.
He sat Jabarie Hinds on the bench for the start of the game for the second time in his career and only let him play for six minutes after one badly missed shot and a turnover. He moved Gary Browne out of the starting lineup and only gave him nine minutes and one missed shot. Aaron Brown and Keaton Miles never took off their warmups.
They're all sophomores and that's probably not a coincidence after Huggins finally bubbled over following Saturday's home loss to Oklahoma State and spilled his frustrations with his second-year players. Center Aaric Murray returned to the starting lineup, but again couldn't stay on the floor and played just four minutes with a missed shot and a turnover.
"If there is such a thing as feeling better, I feel better because we did play hard," Huggins said. "I got all the pouters out of the game and let them sit on the bench and pout. They are not going to pout on the floor anymore."
Throughout the season, all Huggins has asked for is seven or eight players to do enough good things to help the team, or at least not do a bunch of bad things to unravel it. That he's still sorting says he still doesn't have that.
There's no denying it, even as Kilicli vows not to quit and to maintain hope before, during and after Saturday's 2 p.m. game at Kansas (WOWK telecast) and then Wednesday's 9 p.m. game at Oklahoma (ESPN2).
"It's just that we are just bad, and that's OK," Kilicli said. "You can do the hustle plays and be a bad player. You can rebound and steal the ball and stuff like that and help the team. Nobody wants to call themself a bad player. That's the problem. Nobody's honest with each other or with themselves."
Still, WVU defended very well for the first half and outrebounded the much bigger and more agile Bears throughout the game. The turnovers were minimized and the whole thing might have enjoyed a different outcome if the Mountaineers could just shoot the ball effectively.
Yet there was a 1-for-13 stretch when Baylor took permanent control of the game, 21 misses on 29 attempts in the second half and missed shots and questionable decisions in the final minute.
Huggins tried to prevent all that and made quite the change the day before the Baylor game. The Mountaineers installed a new offense that relied on ball screens, handoffs and drives.
"I've tried everything other than put a peach basket up," Huggins said. "It gave us better movement, but it's the same old thing. We haven't done a good enough job making shots. We got shots."
The screens behind forwards set up good shots, from the 3-pointer Eron Harris made to start the team's scoring to the one he missed that could have given WVU the lead with 20 seconds left to play. The Mountaineers also put Baylor into tricky positions and took advantage with drives by guards when the defenders came up too high and entry passes to forwards when the Bears were pinned too deep.
"We tried to get our bigs away from the rim," guard Juwan Staten said. "When we post our bigs, teams tend to sink their bigs down in there. When we're running motion, their bigs tend to slack off our bigs and sit in the paint.
"We tried to get a lot of movement and involve their bigs in a lot of pick-and-rolls, a lot of dribble handoffs to get them away from the rim. We got some movement and got some dribble-drives and open shots."
It made for easier offense, and though the baskets were not there, the shots were, and the handoffs and drives eliminated the needs for too many passes. WVU (13-15, 6-9 Big 12) had just 10 turnovers, the fewest in a month. Only two shots were blocked by a team averaging more than twice as many.
That'll matter against the Jayhawks (24-4, 12-3), who are No. 3 nationally with 6.6 blocks per game and lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense (35.5), both thanks in large part to center Jeff Withey.
And if the latest doesn't work?
"He's not going to just lie down and sit in practice, just an hour-and-a-half practice, and get out," Kilicli said. "That's not going to happen. He's going to try and find plays and people to get us some buckets and defense. We work everything, but we just can't do it. We can't execute on defense, we can't execute on offense. We just can't do it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.