As soon as he saw the national college basketball polls on Monday, Bob Huggins knew he had a problem. West Virginia, the team he played for in college and has coached for the past 11 seasons, had moved up to No. 2 in both the Associated Press and coaches’ rankings. Only Villanova was ranked ahead of the Mountaineers.
“This group has had as good an attitude day in and day out as anyone I’ve coached,” he said Thursday afternoon. “But they’re still kids. And being ranked that high got their attention. They noticed — had to. I knew I was going to have my hands full before the Baylor game.”
Sure enough, West Virginia had a brutal shooting night Tuesday against the Bears, making just 31 percent from the field. Leading scorer Jevon Carter, who was averaging more than 16 points, was 2 for 7 and finished with eight points. Baylor outrebounded the Mountaineers 44-36, the kind of number that might set off Huggins’s defibrillator, which he has had since a heart attack more than 15 years ago.
“I always tell the guys that playing a basketball game is a little bit like playing a scramble in golf,” Huggins said. “You don’t have to be great on every play as long as one of your teammates is great and you do your part when you’re needed. Against Baylor, we would have lost the scramble.”
Only they didn’t. Carter, arguably the country’s best defensive player, hit a three-pointer with 57 seconds left, and West Virginia survived, 57-54. It was the 15th straight victory for WVU since an opening-night loss to Texas A&M in Germany.
It isn’t going to get any easier anytime soon. The Big 12 schedule is unrelenting. On Saturday afternoon, West Virginia fell, 72-71, at No. 8 Texas Tech, which is 15-2, including a win at Kansas . Forty-eight hours later WVU comes home to play Kansas, which has won the past 13 regular season titles in the Big 12. There is one break in the league schedule between now and March for the Big 12-SEC challenge the last weekend in January:
The Mountaineers will play Kentucky.
“Nothing but easy games,” Huggins said in his always-dry tone. “The Big 12 has no bottom this year. No matter who you play, night in and night out, you drop off at all, you’re going to get beat.”
All coaches talk about how strong their conferences are and how every night is a challenge. The Big 12 actually is that way this season, in part because there are only 10 teams. No one is truly bad, unlike the 15-team ACC, which, for all its strength up top, drops off at the bottom. At least half of the Big Ten’s 14 teams will be thrilled to play in the NIT. Same in the Pacific-12 and the Southeastern.
Huggins loves the challenge night in and night out. He’s 64 and has been a head coach for 36 years. He has won 834 games and taken both Cincinnati (1992) and West Virginia (2010) to the Final Four. There have, of course, been rocky moments along the way. Although he took Cincinnati to 14 straight NCAA tournaments and reached the Elite Eight twice in addition to the Final Four run, Huggins developed a reputation for leading a renegade program. The Bearcats were placed on NCAA probation in 1998 for wide-ranging violations, though Huggins wasn’t directly implicated. He also came under fire for his team’s graduation rate, notably when a 1999 report cited the fact that it had been at zero for three years.
The number was misleading. Huggins had recruited a number of junior college players who could not be counted as graduates in any case, and he had had a number of players leave early to play in the NBA or Europe. The NCAA has since changed those standards so that those players no longer count against a school.
In Huggins’s 10 seasons at West Virginia, his players have graduated at a rate that has floated between 80 percent (this past year) and 100 percent (2012). Carter, the team’s star, has a 3.6 grade-point average.
“When those stories first came out, yeah, they were upsetting,” Huggins said. “I knew the number didn’t tell the real story. I also knew that people believe what they want to believe. It was a long time ago, though. I’m long over it.
“When I lost my job at Cincinnati [in 2005], I had calls and notes from every president I ever worked for offering to help me any way they could. That was all I needed.”
The president who forced him to resign was Nancy L. Zimpher. She had apparently decided Huggins’s graduation numbers — deceiving or not — along with a 2004 DUI were enough to allow her to make a change, although Cincinnati had to pay Huggins $3 million to leave .
He sat out the 2005-06 season, probably not a terrible thing for someone who had survived a massive heart attack in September 2002 at age 49. Twice, he flatlined in a Pittsburgh hospital, but he was back in time for the first day of practice three weeks later.
After one season at Kansas State, he couldn’t resist the chance to come home to West Virginia, an opportunity that arose when John Beilein left to take the Michigan job.
“I love this state,” Huggins said. “This is my home, and I love the people here and my life here.”
His two brothers and four sisters are at almost every home game. He’s the oldest and likes to say, “I’ve been number one my whole life.”
He no longer worries about those who bring up the graduation rate at Cincinnati or the DUI or the forced resignation. He loves where he is and the team he’s coaching now.
“I’ve had more talented teams than this,” he said. “There’s no one on this team with [Nick] Van Exel’s explosiveness or Danny Fortson-like ability or Kenyon Martin’s talent. We don’t have anyone like Da’Sean [Butler]. But we do have kids who are smart, who are tough and who love to work and compete. The kind of team I love to coach.”
Huggins may not show it outwardly, but he’s happy again.
He insists he doesn’t know how long he will coach unless . . .
“I’ve always said my dream is to bring a national championship to West Virginia,” he said. “Then I’d take the trophy, we’d put it on a bus and we’d go to every town in the state. We’d have [West Virginia play-by-play man] Tony Caridi on every radio station saying, ‘Smithers, come on out, the trophy’s arriving in 15 minutes.’ We’d have everyone touch it, hold it, take a picture with it.”
He paused. “Then,” he added, “I think I’d be done. There’d be nothing left to do.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.