MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — He was the last to rise from the scrum of bodies in the lane, extending his left arm to a teammate for a pull-up while his right arm hung motionless. He checked out of the game, did Deniz Kilicli, walked to the end of the WVU bench and gingerly sank into a seat beside the team trainer, Randy “Doc” Meador.
Grimacing into a towel, Kilicli began taking Ibuprofen, but as the Turkish forward noted after the game, “Ibuprofen doesn’t do anything anyway.” At least not enough to make him forget about the shoulder that “popped out” during Friday’s practice.
Too sore to complete Friday’s five-on-five drill, but too driven to miss Saturday’s must-win game against Texas Tech, Kilicli played through the pain and brought some to the Red Raiders: 25 points and eight rebounds’ worth. And every bit of that proved necessary as West Virginia beat Tech 66-64, dodging an upset by the length of the whiskers on Kilicli’s beard.
For these arduous past three months, Kilicli has been the bushy-faced poster boy for West Virginia’s underachievement, carrying the weight of a failed season on those burly shoulders. His scoring, field-goal percentage, free-throw shooting, rebounding and minutes all down from his junior year, Kilicli seemed as good a blame bearer as any, especially when coach Bob Huggins repeatedly explained that the difference in this season from previous successful ones was that “my seniors have always stepped up.”
But for all the press conference pokes that required reading between the lines — and the courtside chewing that require dlip-reading censors — Huggins adores the player. For certain, he wishes Kilicli was a better finisher around the basket and a meaner go-getter where 50-50 balls are concerned, but stats and wins aside, the emotions this coach has invested in his only four-year senior will last a lifetime.
“Deniz and I have always had a really good relationship,” Huggins said. “I mean, we had a good relationship even when he didn’t speak English. I didn’t know what the hell he was saying, but he’d always hug me so I thought that was all right.”
Now Kilicli comprehends English just fine, which isn’t always a positive when message boards are jammed with critics blasting him for what is on pace to be WVU’s worst season in a decade.
Huggins, recognizing Kilicli’s need to vent and discuss, said the two have talked for hours on the coach’s back porch, and during those late-night return flights from Big 12 country, the two are known to pow wow in confidence while other players recline and sleep. It was during a recent charter flight that Huggins apparently offered some of his most reassuring counsel at 30,000 feet.
“A lot of people tried to get me down, more than tried to get me up, but Huggs helped me out a lot,” Kilicli said. “I trust him, and I don’t trust anybody else. Once he trusts me, I don’t care what whoever else thinks.
“I talked to him, he told me some stuff, and then I start playing better because mentally I was in better shape.”
His head clear, and his coach clearly in his corner, Kilicli has averaged nearly 14 points during a five-game stretch of which WVU has won four. After watching the banged-up Kilicli make 9-of-11 shots from the floor against Texas Tech, Huggins felt validated for sticking with the 6-9 senior when some fans clamored for his benching.
“I’ve been very tempted to save all these letters I get from the guys who coach better than I do and know more about Deniz than I know,” Huggins said. “Maybe I should just take a month and go evaluate their place of work and send them a letter about what kind of job they’re doing, and what kind of job their employees are doing.
“If they have employees. In some of these cases, it might be how well they’re cooking the French fries at McDonald’s. You can overcook those.”
“I’m sick of it,” Huggins steamed that night in Brooklyn. “I’m sick of watching guys stand around. I’m sick of watching guys not compete. I’m sick of guys missing shot after shot after shot but never coming in early (to practice), never staying late, don’t even think about coming in on an off day. And then telling me they care?”
That, of course, was post-loss Huggins, grappling with the depth of his team’s flaws. By comparison, Saturday’s two-point escape at home against conference weakling Texas Tech seemed sweet relief.
And Kilicli emerging as the day’s MVP? That was just salt on the fries for the big guy’s naysayers.