I am as depressed as anybody by the Mountaineers sudden descent in basketball no-man’s-land. The numbers speak for themselves but perhaps nothing makes it more clear: the team was once 15-5 and 5-2 in the Big East and now they’re 17-12 and 7-9. Where once there was a young team who didn’t realize that basketball was supposed to be hard, there is now a collection of players who do not look like they’re on the same page, who cannot consistently defend, and whose performances are emotional roller-coaster rides.
Fans have theories for what has happened, and while I want to address all of them, I do not believe that any of them are as much to blame as the one that I will conclude with.
These Players Are Terrible
This drumbeat starts with Truck Bryant, who had an awful few weeks after a sizzling start to his senior year. But the critics are there for other guys too: all of the rookies, a few of the returning guys, and basically anybody who isn’t named Kevin Jones. These criticisms aren’t entirely unfounded. Guys have played badly. Shots haven’t fallen. The offense has often stalled. The team’s best player (Jones, by far) can’t get his hands on the ball.
Huggins Recruited These Players
The rejoinder to the These Players Are Terrible complaint is observing that these are all Huggins’s guys. Whereas in previous years he was coaching a combination of his own recruits and the remained of John Beilein’s players, he’s now relying entirely upon the guys that he managed to get here. So implicitly, if the players are bad, then the guy who brought them here must be at fault too. This is fair.
Think Of The Experienced Guys We Lost
It isn’t just the Beilein players who finally graduated out of the program though. At least two players - Dalton Pepper and Dan Jennings (both Huggins’s recruits) - abandoned the program. Pepper voluntarily left, either because his father was sick or because he was sick of Huggins’s rebukes. Jennings spazzed out and was refused re-admission to the program. (And other recruits who would have brought needed experience to this year’s team haven’t worked out either. Kevin Noreen was playing but injured himself again, sadly. Noah Cottrill is high somewhere. Darrious Curry can’t ever play again, except when he does, owing to an undiscovered heart condition. David Nyarsuk never made it to campus.)
The Emotional Abuse Isn’t Getting It Done
Huggins has been as red-faced as ever on the sideline this season, and more than blunt after press conferences, going so far as to describe one player as a “coward” for refusing to take a charge at a critical point in Friday’s night’s crushing loss to Marquette. He has employed the patented Huggins Hook for most of the season, yanking young guys out of the lineup at a moment’s notice for mistakes real or imagined. Fans are rightly starting to wonder whether this sort of coaching isn’t crushing the confidence of players we need to contribute: Aaron Brown is the most obvious example. We’ve seen him shoot the ball earlier in the season but now he looks terrified to do so. (This same melodrama played itself out last season with Pepper, who missed shots before trudging over to the bench in anticipating of getting removed from games for not shooting 100 percent from the field.)
But The Real Reason…
All of these explanations are perfectly reasonable on their own, but they’re missing the bigger issue: we’ve got a young team. At some point, players have to learn the game of basketball and how it is played at a particular level. They’re going to struggle along the way. Unlike other teams that Huggins has had, this is a team not populated overwhelmingly with upper-classmen.
This is a team who desperately require quality minutes from young men who do not have the experience it takes to necessarily deliver them on a consistent basis. Our upper-classmen, incidentally, are this: Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant, Deniz Kilicli, and, barely, Kevin Noreen. Jones and Bryant have been great players for the Mountaineers, Jones more than Bryant. Kilicli is essentially coming into the end of his sophomore season, given his ludicrous suspension for his first year on campus. Noreen has spent the majority of his career injured, and is only an upper-classmen in the sense that he’s spent two years living in Morgantown.
The rest of the team though? They’re just not experienced enough. And while it is fair to observe that a majority of players just aren’t particularly good right now, and while it is fair to say that these are the players that Huggins wanted, and while it is fair to observe that Huggins might have chased away players capable of contributing, and while it is fair to say that Huggins tirades aren’t getting the job done right now, the real issue is that these players just aren’t ready.
The unfortunate side-effect of that is that Kevin Jones (and, to a lesser extent, Truck Bryant) are being wasted in their senior seasons. I think we can collectively wish that this hadn’t happened, but it is has. Perhaps a more reasonable response would be a rejiggering of our own expectations for the team and a recognition that, in the future, things will improve, as they inevitably do, when players gain the experience necessary to be successful.