Midway through his 31st season as a college head coach, Bob Huggins can point to 30 teams easier to coach than this one.
He acknowledged this fact during his Thursday night call-in show, which came less than 24 hours after a 69-67 loss at Iowa State in which West Virginia fashioned an 18-point second-half comeback behind a four-guard lineup.
It’s a small-ball attack Huggins vowed to repeat, the kind of midseason switch indicative of a team in flux and a coach in desperation mode. Frustrated by a 1-3 start in Big 12 play — and peeved by big men who are chronically misaligned, passive and unproductive — Huggins isn’t afraid to change his philosophy.
“We’re going with a small lineup,” he said. “(The bigs) have had ample opportunity. They’ve had over half the season. I mean, how can it be worse? We’re 1-3. How can it be worse?
“It comes down that I’m the dumb one because I continue to believe that they’re going to do the right thing when they consistently don’t.”
Though Iowa State failed to reach the 70-point mark for the first time this season, Huggins hardly considered his team’s defense acceptable. Too many back cuts unchecked. Too many shooters uncontested. Guess where Huggins found fault?
“It was our bigs — they were supposed to hard hedge on screens and they didn’t hard hedge,” he said. “(Iowa State) ball-screened and our bigs didn’t do anything. They just kind of stood back there in the lane.
“I’ve got like three guys who think they’re Shaq, except they’re not. So they just stood back there.”
Sophomore forward Kevin Noreen, the lone big man to show the aggression Huggins desired, played 29 minutes — the same amount of court time for which Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray combined.
Noreen did not attempt a field goal and scored only one point, but he grabbed 10 rebounds and set screens that helped spring the guard collective of Jabarie Hinds, Eron Harris, Juwan Staten and Matt Humphrey. That group not only rescued WVU from the brink of a blowout, down 56-38 with 9:04 to play, but equalized the game at 67-all on Hinds’ 3-pointer with 11.6 seconds left.
Watching his small-ball crew spread the floor and sink 9-of-12 from 3-point range in the final 11 minutes, Huggins embraced two prongs of an inconvenient truth. WVU should cease running its offense through the low post, should revamp a rotation constructed for the rugged Big East.
“Playing with those bigs hasn’t worked — just has not worked,” Huggins said moments after the game. And that wasn’t merely the declaration of coach swept up in the aftermath of a narrow loss, because Thursday night he reiterated the need for WVU to acclimate to its new neighborhood.
“The Big 12 is a much more athletic league, and the Big East is more physical,” he said. “And the officiating is different (in the Big 12) because they don’t want the same style as the Big East has. They want it to be a more fluid, free-flowing, free-movement kind of deal.”
For Huggins, who didn’t anticipate WVU being merely a .500 team through 16 games, that means one more inconvenient truth: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Emphatic following the loss in Ames that Iowa State’s Chris Babb fouled Harris before the final horn, Huggins said his opinion hadn’t changed after reviewing the play on video.
“In my estimation, it could have been called,” he said.