A Simple Game

Staff Writer
Posted Jan 27, 2011


Those of us who have covered WVU men's basketball for the entirety of Bob Huggins' tenure as the program's head coach (which is almost four seasons old) have gotten used to some of the man's stories and sayings. But there's one in particular that rings true, and it was the biggest difference in the two halves of the Mountaineers' 55-54 loss to Louisville on Wednesday night.

Just after Huggins had concluded his postgame press conference, another reporter on the West Virginia beat spoke to me in the media workroom in the bowels of the KFC Yum! Center.

The head coach's words were more than predictable, we both agreed.

If WVU had managed to pull out a hard-fought victory, it would have been about the way Joe Mazzulla and others made shots in the first half.

But in the wake of a tough-to-handle loss, Huggins cited the team's struggles to do so in the final 20 minutes.

"You have to make some shots. There’s nobody in this league that’s going to let you shoot layups the whole game," the head coach said, just before going on to half-jokingly wonder if his own team, (which he called "charitable") might be the one squad in the Big East Conference to allow an opponent consistently easy looks.

Those who pay attention to the coach's postgame press conferences consistently have heard those words about offense a lot over the last few years.

Many times, after losses, Huggins will remark that his players "just didn't make shots." On other occasions in recent weeks, like WVU's win over then-No. 8 Purdue or its blowout victory over Providence, the coach will say, "We're a lot better when we make shots."

Rocket science, this is not. It's obvious even to people who aren't basketball fans that making shots matters.

After all, shots that go in the basket count for points. Those that don't go in don't count for points.

Am I boring you yet?

Yes, as long as the outcome of the game is determined by who has more points on the scoreboard when the clock hits zeroes, making shots will, obviously, be important.

But it goes beyond that.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino remarked that his team's full-court pressure defense was far more effective in the second half because his team made enough shots to consistently set up the pressure, hounding WVU's guards in the back-court, forcing turnovers on some possessions and winding time off the shot clock on others.

That factor, combined with West Virginia's struggles to make shots of its own, conspired to make the Cardinals' comeback from what was an 11-point deficit possible.

As the Mountaineers continued to miss jump shot after jump shot, U of L defenders felt more comfortable packing in their zone defense closer and closer to the rim.

That denied Mazzulla, who had a career-high 18 points by halftime after knifing his way to the goal on many occasions, the ability to attack the basket or toss entry passes into the post.

Without the ability to score some points by way of "easy" shots near the rim, WVU's drought went on. And on. And on.

It totaled just shy of 14:00 without a field goal by the time Dalton Pepper finally buried a 3-pointer off an inbounds pass in the last two minutes. All told, Huggins' squad shot 18 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes -- a recipe for disaster against any team, let alone a top 25 opponent playing on its home floor.

Considering those shooting woes and the fact that he was already working with a limited rotation thanks to the suspension of guard Casey Mitchell and the apparent departure of center Dan Jennings, it was surprising to several observers that reserve guard Jonnie West didn't see the floor at all.

Huggins played only seven Mountaineers, and the senior guard -- one of the team's best shooters -- wasn't one of them.

There are possible explanations for that decision. Perhaps Huggins didn't think West was capable of holding his own defensively against Louisville's athletic guards. Perhaps he thought West would be a liability on the glass.

So I asked why West didn't play, thinking maybe Huggins would offer one of those reasons up, letting those fans who were frustrated by WVU's inability to score points when it mattered know what the head coach's rationale was for keeping West -- one of only three Mountaineers to not play (the other two were walk-ons Craig Carey and Kenny Ross) -- on the bench.

"I’ll take care of that,” Huggins snapped. “I’ll take care of who I put in a game and when I do, if that’s okay with you."

That certainly is just fine with me. And, condescending response aside, Huggins surely doesn't care what I think anyway.

But perhaps he should be reminded of his own oft-repeated words about the importance of making shots. Just one or two could have made all the difference on Wednesday night.



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