Is it possible that the impossible dream isn’t impossible at all?
Is this the year that Bob Huggins and West Virginia finally get their first NCAA championship?
It’s a long shot, the Mountaineers being a No. 9 seed, a team that lost 14 times, lost six of those games by double figures and lost by 34 points to Texas and by 17 and 14 to Kansas … but there’s a certain glow being cast on the season that Huggins has authored this year.
True, he’s never won the big one, but he’s never coached in the tournament as a Hall of Fame coach, and if there is that indefinable thing called karma that exists in this world, Huggins and WVU may have it this year.
You could say they are due, Huggins twice getting to the Final Four and WVU reaching the NCAA championship game with Jerry West only to fall a point short.
Let’s not kid ourselves, either. Winning the NCAA Tournament starts with coaching. Ain’t too many stiffs winning the tournament, not with a roster of past champions that includes Rupp and Knight and Wooden and Krzyzkewski and Smith.
In a way, Huggins already has performed a miracle this year. You’ve heard him talk about his team digging its way out of a hole it built for itself; a grave dug because it just took time for all phases of this team gerrymandered through the NCAA Transfer Portal, junior college additions and freshmen to learn how to play with each other and play for Bob Huggins.
Huggins had discussed it over and over during the season, but with a new, national cast of inquisitors on hand this week, he had to discuss it again.
And as he did, he offered up insights that maybe none of us thought about as it was going on and he was putting his team together.
“I have a way. It varies,” he said of molding a team. “You know, the idea that you treat them all the same is absolute BS. You can’t treat them all the same. They are all different. They have different expectations, they have different goals, you find out what makes them tick.
“You find out where they want to go, what they want to do, what they want to be.”
It’s an individual approach to making them into one team, and it comes out of his background.
“It’s the same thing that happened to me as a player. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wanted to play basketball, and right now, if you asked every one of them what they want to do, they would want to play basketball … whether that be in Europe, whether that be in the CBA, the ABA, the NBA. They want to keep playing.”
So Huggins would use that, work with them on readying them for the next game, yes, but also for the next level.
“You spend time, work with them, try to make things realistic with them, try to tell them what it takes to achieve the goals they want to achieve.
“And I have been there. I’ve got a great staff. I’ve got the guy who was the sixth pick in the draft (DerMarr Johnson). I got another assistant (Alex Ruoff) who played for me and another assistant (Ron Everhart) who, as a kid, used to come down and rebound for me when I tried to get shots up after the game if I had a bad game.
“I’ve known Ron since he was a little kid. So I’ve got guys I can trust. I got guys who in a lot of ways know a lot more than I know about a lot of things.”
That’s what got them through the tough times, a bunch of individuals becoming a team as they lost three or four games that they should have won.
“We had opportunities early, particularly in the conference season where we should have won games and we didn’t win games,” Huggins said. “We missed free throws, we missed layups, we threw it away at a crucial time. We just did a lot of things that are uncharacteristic of, really, of this group. And it cost us.
“It got to the point where it was time to sit down and say, ‘Fellas, we have screwed up. We put our backs against the wall. And we can either fight our way out or we can give in.’ Obviously, they decided to fight their way out.”
The thing was, Huggins could have lost his players. He was publicly critical of them, but you know what he was saying in press interviews wasn’t anything worse than what he was saying behind closed doors to their faces.
“He’s going to let you know right there on the spot, whether you like it or not,” Erik Stevenson said.
There’s a lesson in coaching in the way Huggins handled Stevenson, for getting him to be the leader he had to be on the team was one of the most difficult coaching challenges of Huggins’ career.
There were times when it looked like they were going at each other; times when Stevenson would let his emotions take control of his actions and cost the team. It was the kind of stuff you would not think Huggins would put up with, but he kept working away at molding Stevenson into a player who used his emotions for the good of the team.
“I played for Frank Martin and Gregg Marshall, so it didn’t take me long at all (to learn how to deal with Huggins),” Stevenson said. “Huggins is an amazing hall of famer, he’s very demanding. When you meet his demands, he lets you play, gives you freedom. You couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
“Believe it or not, Erik and I have always had a pretty good relationship. I think there’s been a lot of guys through the years that we have great relationships that people really have no idea, because I think most of us think that it’s nobody’s damn idea anyways other than ours,” Huggins said.
Huggins noted that a team takes care of each other, and Stevenson learned to be a part of that, especially down the stretch when the Mountaineers elbowed their way into the tournament.
This is a team that people from afar were kicking dirt on as it tried to crawl out of that grave it had dug for itself, and now, with the likes of Stevenson and Kedrian Johnson and Emmitt Matthews Jr. looking at the prospect of one loss ending their careers, they will not go out easily.
They’ve come too far to run out of breath at the finish line.
“Yeah, I mean, it seems like I played a thousand college games. So, I mean, I had this feeling last year like, ‘This might be my last game.’ But I got the year back, and I’m glad I’m going to end my career where I want to in the NCAA Tournament,” Stevenson said. “Yeah, you can definitely get a feeling that college is coming to an end.”
And right now, he’s worried not about his grade point average or his scoring average, only about prolonging the experience as far as he can and keeping the impossible dream alive.
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