“I think hopefully finality sets in,” Huggins said of the mindset of his Mountaineer players heading into Thursday’s Round of 64 game against Gonzaga. “The next time they lose, K.J. and Truck [seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant] for sure, they’re never going to wear the uniform again.
“During the regular season, it’s always, ‘We’ll get ‘em next time.’ Sometimes, underclassmen are that way to a degree. But I tell them the next time they lose, they’ll be back lifting weights and running with [strength and conditioning coach] Andy [Kettler], which really isn’t a lot of fun. You do all that so you can play. So why wouldn’t you do the best job you could at trying to play as long as you can play?”
The attempt to prolong West Virginia’s season begins with a matchup against the Bulldogs of Gonzaga, the No. 7 seed in the East Regional and the West Coast Conference runner-up.
Under veteran head coach Mark Few, the Zags have been a fixture in March Madness for more than a decade, and thus, the one-time Cinderella story is now expected to compete with opponents from major conferences in NCAA Tournament games on a regular basis.
Given the makeup of this year’s Gonzaga team (25-6, RPI No. 25), that should be no different this season, Huggins said.
“I think they’re extremely skilled,” WVU’s fifth-year head coach said. “They’re extremely well-coached. They do a great job with early help defensively. They really make it difficult to score the ball in the lane. And offensively, they pass the ball so well. They’re very unselfish. They pass the ball extremely well, and they have a lot of shot-makers.”
The latter notions are borne out by statistics. The Bulldogs have scored at least 67 points per game in all but one outing against an RPI top 100 team this season. They have been held under 70 points only six times all year.
For comparison’s sake, West Virginia (19-13) has been held under 70 in 13 games this season. But despite that, Huggins indicated the issues with his team have less to do with scoring and more to do with untimely lapses.
“We’re averaging a good bit more than we did a year ago,” the head coach noted. “I think scoring at opportune games [has been an issue] but we’ve lost 10 games by 29 points. Obviously we’d like to score a little more, but we’ve been in games. I think because of a lot of reasons, but primarily because of our youth, we haven’t finished games. And we’ve played a great schedule. We played good people.”
Huggins was asked about the departure of freshman Tommie McCune, who became the latest in a rather long line of players to leave the WVU program in recent years, and whether such attrition could bring any concerns about the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate in years to come.
“Let’s be honest: we had a guy leave because he had social problems. It had nothing to do with basketball. We had a guy [Dalton Pepper] leave because his father had a heart attack and hadn’t worked for a year and a half. We had a guy who was ruled medically ineligible [Darrious Curry],” Huggins said. “I mean, is there APR concerns? Not at all.
“They were doing what they were supposed to do academically. The crazy thing is you can have a guy ruled medically unable to play, and it affects your APR. And he never played. He never practiced. But yet we weren’t granted an exception because he was on scholarship. It’s kind of ridiculous.”
The travel situation for Thursday’s game -- which will see the “home” team (Gonzaga) fly across the country to get to Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, while WVU faces only a short bus ride up Interstate 79 -- was again a topic of conversation.
A reporter asked Huggins if the Zags would be put at a disadvantage due to the travel disparity.
“You haven’t seen our bus driver,” the head coach quipped. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask Fewie that. I know this: I flew out to the west coast and back in one day, and it wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Further, Huggins said he actually expected West Virginia to play close to home, as he believed (based on the fact that he “know[s] a lot of people”) that the Mountaineers would be placed into Louisville, Columbus or Pittsburgh for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Given the youth of the WVU roster and the fact that Gonzaga’s backcourt is also quite young (starting guards Gary Bell, Jr., and Kevin Pangos are both freshmen), Huggins was asked if the mentality of those players -- who shrinks in a big moment and who shines instead -- could determine the outcome.
“I’ve watched a lot of tape of Gonzaga. I don’t see them shrinking,” Huggins said. “And I’d be very surprised if our guys did.”