BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – If you don’t interact with him much, it’s hard to know if a question for Bob Huggins will earn you a scowl or a heap of wisdom delivered in a gruff voice that’s sometimes so quiet you won’t have to make an effort to hear it. Even at the age of 69, his mere presence can intimidate as well as impress. As much success as he’s had over four decades as a head coach, he won’t be for everyone.
“I knew he was probably the hardest coach in all of America to play for,” said forward Emmitt Matthews, Jr.
The question of whether that reputation still works in the current collegiate sports environment, and especially in a geographically difficult outpost like West Virginia, was a hot one at this late stage of Huggins Hall of Fame career.
In both 2019 and 2022, the Mountaineers finished 4-14 in the Big 12 and missed the NCAA tournament by a mile. Along the way, West Virginia lost some notable players to the transfer portal, including Oscar Tshiebwe, who won Kentucky national team of the year, as well as Jalen Bridges (to Baylor) and Sean McNeil (to Ohio State).
Then that season, as he languished at 0-5 in the rough Big 12, Huggins fired longtime assistant coach Larry Harrison, who was with him for nearly a quarter of a century. It looked like Huggins’ time was next, be it after his election or after school.
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“We had chances early on, especially in the conference season where we should have won games, but we didn’t win any games,” Huggins said. “We missed free throws, we missed layups, we threw it away at a crucial moment. We just did a lot of things that are actually atypical for this group. And it cost us. And it got to the point where it was time to sit down and say, ‘Guys, we screwed up. We stand with our backs against the wall. And we can either fight our way out or we can give.’ Obviously they decided to fight their way out.”
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In the end, West Virginia turned its season around enough to not only make the NCAA tournament, but also secure a 9th-place finish and a chance against 8th-place Maryland on Thursday. Even at just 19-14 into the season, the Mountaineers are easy betting favorites to advance and likely meet No. 1 overall Alabama in the Round of 32. So due to Huggins’ reputation for making the absolute maximum out of what he’s got, facing his teams in March is always such a daunting proposition.
But how many runs does Huggins have left? At this point we should cherish each of these opportunities to hear what he has to offer on this stage.
Like on Wednesday, when Huggins was in a reflective mood, the conversation moved from basketball to growing up “in a trailer with four sisters and two brothers” and the lessons learned along the way.
“Don’t be the last in the tub,” Huggins said dryly. “Its hard. The last one in the tub is rough. You know, you’re in a trailer. They basically share the same water.”
However, the reality is that these lines play really well as you prepare to play in the postseason. Not so much when it seems like the Big 12 and college basketball in general have outpaced your program.
And at this point, West Virginia looks – by nature – like a year-to-year proposition.
Across the transfer portal and the general culture of college basketball, Huggins will be a little bemoaned in 2023. Because although West Virginia lost a lot of talent to the transfer portal, Huggins essentially made the Mountaineers a program that runs primarily to operate through the portal. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Don’t put too much into the long-term development of players who might not stick around, just get some guys and a coach.
West Virginia’s top scorer that year, guard Erik Stevenson, played in Wichita State, Washington and South Carolina before landing in Morgantown. Tre Mitchell, their launch center, made stops in UMass and Texas. Sixth Man Joe Toussaint spent three years in Iowa. And Matthews actually played in West Virginia for three years, went to Washington and then came back.
All of them will be gone next year, and Huggins will be starting almost from scratch. With no high school recruits required, the Mountaineers will soon be back on the portal looking for talent.
“I’m trying to get our guys ready, give them every opportunity to win,” Huggins said. “We should do that. We’ll take care of that later.”
Can this work as a sustainable formula for Huggins in the final chapter of his career? We will see. It certainly comes with complications. Earlier this season, Huggins admitted he wasn’t quite sure what to do with his new players, who might not be used to his aggressive coaching style or might be struggling to break old habits and adjust to West Virginia’s style of play.
That’s always a risk with so many new parts in a sport where you don’t have a long runway to solve problems.
But the fact that West Virginia got things on track in time to make the NCAA tournament shows why Huggins is Huggins, making two Finals Fours and nine Sweet 16s, despite rarely having top-tier talent.
“I have a way,” Huggins said. “That is different. You know, the idea that you treat them all the same is absolute bullshit. You can’t treat them all the same. They are all different. 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 become. The same thing happened to me as a player.”
With so many coaching legends having retired in recent years, it’s good for college basketball that there’s still someone as authentic as Huggins. Whenever he’s at an NCAA tournament, it feels like he belongs there.
At this point in his life and career, basketball fans should take every opportunity to see him on the sidelines.