Commentary

WVU mirrors Huggins' toughness en route to surprising Sweet 16

Originally Published: March 22, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- On the first day Bob Huggins held practice at West Virginia, he dragged a treadmill to the side of the court, plugged it in and left it there.

No one thought much about it. Treadmills and stationary bikes are commonplace for injured players who need extra workouts and still want to watch practice.

Then John Flowers messed up. No one remembers the exact infraction, but he did something Huggins didn't like and the coach told Flowers to hit the treadmill.

"It's on 15 miles per hour for at least 45 seconds," Joe Alexander explained. "And you can't hold on to anything, so if you don't run fast enough, you just fall off."

Everyone except Darris Nichols has hit the treadmill this season -- "and he should have been," Alexander said -- punching tickets to sprint for anything from not boxing out to not listening to not playing hard enough in Huggins' estimation.

"You're pretty dead when you get off," Flowers said. "Then you have to go right back into the drill, and if you mess up again, you're back on the treadmill. But no one has been on it that much lately."

No doubt. On the heels of its surprise run to the Big East tournament semifinal, West Virginia -- a team barely on the NCAA radar as recently as February -- is in the Sweet 16. Combining a second-half defensive swarm with an offensive clinic, the 7-seed Mountaineers steamrolled No. 2 seed Duke 73-67.

Less dramatic than the Mike Gansey-Kevin Pittsnogle Elite Eight dash of 2005, this West Virginia push to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament is no less unexpected. When John Beilein bolted to Michigan, he left behind a team used to playing a finesse game.

Enter Huggins, a man who has about as much finesse as John Goodman in a tutu.

The Mountaineers were picked to finish 10th in the Big East.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia
AP Photo/Susan WalshThe West Virginia players were worried about the transition to Bob Huggins. But they've taken on his tough personality to earn a Sweet 16 berth.

"Some people were predicting we'd go to the NIT," Nichols said. "They were wondering how far we could go in that. Nobody thought about the NCAAs for us."

Much of the credit deservedly will go to Huggins, but the players merit equal helpings. Coaching changes are awful, fraught with personality conflicts and awkward getting-to-know-you phases. Coaches complain about dealing with players they didn't recruit; players grow frustrated playing for a guy they'd never even met before.

Arizona went from a team loaded with talent to a dysfunctional family as soon as Lute Olson passed the torch to Kevin O'Neill, and if Indiana players didn't arrange an all-out boycott of Dan Dakich, they sure did a good job of staging a sit-in. The Hoosiers stopped playing on Feb. 22, the day Kelvin Sampson left town. Both teams lost in the NCAA first round.

Players at West Virginia were no less wary of Huggins, a man whose demanding personality surely precedes him. They heard he was difficult and even cruel, heard his practices were more difficult than military boot camp.

"The only thing harder than practicing for Coach was when I worked with my dad pouring cement," Nichols said.

Alexander, playing like one of the best players in the country the past month, got earful after earful from Huggins as he tried to become -- in his junior year of college -- a low-post player for the first time in his career. Flowers ran more sprints than Justin Gatlin, and Wellington Smith remembers "just getting yelled at."

But rather than balk at Huggins, they embraced him. Impressed that Huggins didn't come in and overthrow everything, instead incorporating parts of Beilein's more familiar game plan with his own style, the players assumed Huggins' personality. And along the way, they earned his respect.

"Jamie [Smalligan] texted me last night and said, 'Coach, it's a better matchup if I don't start,'" Huggins said. "How many teams have guys like that? Here's a senior, a guy who said basically, 'Coach, I just know it's a bad matchup for me,' and he's started every game of the year."

These might not be Huggins' players; he didn't recruit them. But these players are Huggins. They are not McDonald's All-Americans or basketball bluebloods, but chip-on-the-shoulder scrappers who fit perfectly a man who grew up in a tiny town in West Virginia with "two stoplights and nine bars," was shocked back to life three times after a heart attack and was all but run out of Cincinnati.

[+] EnlargeJoe Alexander
James Lang-US PRESSWIREJoe Alexander was consistently double teamed but still turned in a double double (22 and 11).

Smith balked at the notion that the Mountaineers were in any way intimidated by Duke.

"It's just a name on the front of a jersey," he said. "It's not like they have Jason Williams or Carlos Boozer anymore."

And Alexander all but sneered at the suggestion that beating Duke was an upset -- "People act like we're a mid-major or something. We play in the Big East" -- and giddily shared an exchange he had after snuffing DeMarcus Nelson.

"I told him, 'You shouldn't shoot it anymore,'" Alexander said.

Asked what Nelson said back, Alexander replied, "He was actually very nice to me the rest of the game." Nelson was 2-for-11 from the floor for six points.

Nelson wasn't the only one who had more than he could handle from West Virginia. After playing what Smith called "the worst half of the season," which ended with the Mountaineers trailing by five at the break, the team staged a ferocious rally that turned into a rout.

After Gerald Henderson badly missed a 3-pointer, Nichols drained one right in front of his bench to cut Duke's lead to 37-34. Nelson was whistled for a travel on Duke's next possession and with the shot clock fading to the buzzer, Alex Ruoff nailed a falling-away 3-pointer to tie the score.

From that point on, the Mountaineers kept on the gas. Feisty guard Joe Mazzulla came off the bench to take it down the Devils' gut, narrowly missing a triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. And Alexander, despite double-teams every time he touched the ball, finished with 22 and 11.

The Mountaineers schooled the much smaller Devils on the boards, beating them 47-27 overall, including 25-11 in the second half, and put a defensive clamp on Duke. The Devils missed their first nine 3-pointers and managed just nine field goals in the second half, four of them in the final minute when the West Virginia faithful already had started the party.

"Once we got behind, we tried to gamble a little bit," Duke sophomore Jon Scheyer said. "They got in the lane, and we overhelped a little bit, so they got open looks."

The loss sends the Blue Devils to a second consecutive first-weekend NCAA exit and continues a trend that seems to afflict Duke when it leaves the North Carolina borders. Since their last national championship in 2001, the Devils are 8-0 in NCAA tourney games played in their home state and 5-7 in games anywhere else.

"I'm proud of our guys," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And we lost to a team that's playing really good basketball and is a good group of kids and played their butts off."

Maybe West Virginia plays like that because of the treadmill. Huggins has used it with other teams.

It's a great conditioning tool, he said, good for the legs.

It's also a great educational tool, in that after you're on it once, you learn quickly that you never want to go back on it.

Never, though, has the treadmill been more symbolic or meaningful. It's just a piece of machinery. It can be good for a Sunday stroll or an all-out sprint.

Just depends how tough you want to be.

"I don't know how tough we are," Huggins said. "But we're definitely a lot tougher than we were at the beginning of the season."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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