WVU’s Huggins: ‘I Think We Were On The Verge Of Doing Something Special’
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Bob Huggins had one of those feelings a coach gets when his team is ready to take the next step forward.
It’s something you see in practice first. It’s something you see in games. It’s something you sense in the locker room, a time when there is more smiling, more joking, when doubt is replaced with confidence.
That ugly spell of losing six of seven games, of disaster after disaster in someone else’s gym, was over. WVU had won at Iowa State, the key word there being ‘at’, for road wins were scarcer than Derek Culver made free throws, and had beaten No. 4 Baylor at home.The Big 12 Championship was at hand. They just seemed to be the team they were early in the season.
What great timing.
Or what lousy timing, for the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across America and the Big 12 and NCAA postseason extravaganzas were canceled.
It hit Huggins’ team like a sledgehammer.
“It’s crazy,” Huggins said from Florida late Monday night. “You feel so bad for the kids. We went through a tough spell and they responded and played so well coming back against Iowa State and then the Baylor game. They were terrific in practice the day before we found out we weren’t going to have a tournament.”
Then the season ended, careers ended.
“You feel bad for them. Jermaine (Haley) is running around looking for a basketball to shoot the day we found out there would be no tournament,” Huggins said. “And then he sat there and just held the ball for a couple of hours.”
His career was over. Chase Harler’s was. Logan Routt’s was.
And that comeback WVU was in the midst of engineering? It just dissipated into thin air.
What might have been, those kids will never know.
The decision to cancel was the right decision, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful.
“We struggled through a spell but we did have some great wins,” Huggins said, looking back.
But then he looked forward.
“I think we were on the verge of doing something special,” he said.
It left as a team without an identity. They won’t, Huggins said, be remembered for beating No. 2 Ohio State or beating No. 4 Baylor.
“They will be remembered, unfortunately, as the team that didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Huggins said. “I think years from now when people bring it up, people will say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the year they didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament. No one got to play in the NCAA Tournament.’”
That bothers Huggins for that is the cherry atop the ice cream sundae.
He knows how far they came, this team that won only 15 games the previous year, this team rife with freshmen and newcomers, this team unranked when the year began and picked near the bottom of the Big 12.
“I keep getting stuff — and I don’t know why I look at it, but I do — Joe Lunardi had a deal in the Philadelphia paper that we were going to play Villanova in the Elite Eight or beat Villanova to go to the Elite Eight,” Huggins said.
“You keep reading those things. People listen to Joe Lunardi because he’s been right so many times and … I’d have taken that. I’d have taken our chances in the Elite Eight against anybody.”
In fact, if someone had dared predict they would win 21 games without the tournaments, been ranked in the Top 25 after playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, what would it have been like?
“They’d have held a parade downtown,” Huggins said.
And, Huggins noted, the scenario in Morgantown wasn’t the worst in the country.
“Think about the poor people in Dayton,” Huggins said. “How would you like to be those people? That’s arguably the best team they’ve had at that school since Donnie May when Dayton beat UCLA and May went for 40 something.
“I don’t know if they would have made the Final Four. But they had a legitimate chance to get to the Final Four and be an NCAA champion … and now they will never get to realize that dream.”
Donnie May was one of the great college players of all-time, but it wasn’t against UCLA in which he had his greatest game. That came in the national semifinal when he led Dayton to an upset of North Carolina, hitting 16 of 22 shots from the field — including a stunning 13 in a row — while scoring 34 points and 15 rebounds in a 76-62 victory.
They lost, 79-64, in the final to a great UCLA team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lucius Allen and Mike Warren but May outscored Jabbar, 21 to 20, in the game and grabbed 17 rebounds to Jabbar’s 18.
But they had the chance. This year neither Dayton nor WVU had the chance to do their post-season thing and that is what hurts in both places.
“It’s disappointing. It’s disappointing for those guys. It’s not easy to get it turned around at the end. They were into it, they were really into it,” Huggins said.
“You go back and think, we lost a bunch of games on the road … we couldn’t make a free throw.
“Every one of those games we couldn’t make a free throw and really, we couldn’t score close.
“We had more balls roll off the rim than I’ve ever seen.”
It still eats him that in a loss to Oklahoma his WVU team missed 22 shots inside of two feet.
“You keep looking back at the ones we lost, but those guys played their butts off in some games.”