Harris: Bad season doesn't define Huggins
I'm willing to give West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins the benefit of the doubt if you are.
Huggins is having a bad year; he could experience his first losing season in 27 years, which would be a major news flash. But here's the thing about Huggins, a hard-edged coach with a reputation for doing things his way:
Even with 723 career wins ranking him third among active coaches, and despite taking his teams to postseason play in all but three of his 30 seasons while appearing in 20 NCAA Tournaments and two Final Fours, Huggins admits to not having every answer, particularly this year.
“We'll make adjustments and we'll figure it out and we'll do a better job,” Huggins said a day before losing, 91-65, at Kansas. The 26-point setback against the No. 4 Jayhawks was the Mountaineers' ninth double-digit loss this season, with six losses coming against fellow Big 12 opponents.
“When the game starts, we start pretty well,” Huggins said Monday, two days following the Kansas loss, in response to a follow-up question. “Our problem comes when the other team does different things and makes adjustments. We don't adjust when other people adjust.”
The Mountaineers also don't travel well, but who can blame them? During a particularly grueling stretch of four games in nine days last month, WVU won at TCU, lost at Baylor, beat Texas Tech at home and lost at Kansas State.
“I'm not making excuses, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the travel's been hard on the guys,” Huggins said. “You get back at four in the morning and expect to go to an 8 or 9 o'clock class, and then you've got two days to practice for another game. In some instances, you get one day. Everybody else (in the Big 12) is flying one hour, and we're flying two or three.”
WVU's struggles in basketball seem hauntingly familiar. When the football team went belly-up in its first Big 12 campaign, the coaching staff underwent major changes and continues to do so.
The Mountaineers basketball team is 13-16, 6-10 in league play. What will Huggins do?
He can't break up the team. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't.
Huggins recruited the majority of this year's roster believing those players would be playing in the Big East. Instead, the Mountaineers changed leagues and have been overwhelmed against Big 12 talent.
“The truth of the matter is, our team was already set before the Big 12 thing happened. We were obviously built to be a Big East team,” said Huggins, who in November signed a contract extension through 2023 that includes $20 million over the next six years. “The Big East and the Big 12 are a lot different. The 4-man (power forward) in the Big 12 (can) bounce the ball; they play a lot off the bounce. They're more 3-4s (small forward/power forward) than they are 4-5s (power forward/center). That's an adjustment we need to deal with.”
Still, given that the Mountaineers' big men aren't as athletic as their Big 12 counterparts, there have been opportunities to win games this year that slipped away for any number of reasons.
A recent 3-point home loss against Baylor was particularly galling to Huggins, who can't seem to get through to some of his players — including the ones he's stuck with, for better or worse.
“We miss a 3-4 footer, we miss a tip, and we're able to rebound that and we miss a wide-open three from one of our better 3-point shooters,” Huggins said. “Our problem has been shooting ourselves in the foot, not somebody else shooting us in the foot.”
That falls on Huggins because, well, he's the coach. His players, for whatever reason, aren't responding to his message.
Are they tuning him out? Huggins' tough sideline manner can wear on his players; not everyone can thrive in his system. It takes a certain type of individual to not take his harsh words personally.
Huggins said he's tried to be a more lenient coach this season. Maybe that's the part of the problem. His last losing season occurred in 1984-85 when his first team at Akron finished 12-14, so he must be doing something right to finish this many years ahead in the win column.
“I've tried to coax some people along, and it hasn't worked. I made an error in the way I handled those guys,” Huggins said. “We're going to miss shots, we're going to miss some defensive assignments. But we're going to do it with great enthusiasm, and we're going to do it as hard as we can possibly do it.”
Say what you will about Huggins, but the man has produced 26 consecutive winning seasons. That's a heck of an accomplishment. Huggins can still coach; it's just been one of those years.