By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Try as he might, Bob Huggins has to tell the truth. “I could lie to you, but I am not very good at it,” said Huggins, during a press conference following West Virginia’s 87-82 loss to Virginia Tech on Tuesday at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg.
For as loud as Huggins can be on the sidelines, and he could be heard clearly at times from across the floor as the Mountaineers lost a 17-point first half lead, he can be just as quiet in a press conference.
Especially after a loss.
“As I tell you all the time, you have to be really dumb to have to lose to learn,” Huggins said. “Why can’t we can’t win and learn.”
When asked if the Mountaineers (1-1) could gain something from the loss, Huggins may have already been thinking about the importance of winning every game in hopes of a return to the NCAA Tournament four months from now, a difficult proposition in the ultra-competitive Big 12.
“I think we put ourselves in a big hole, have you looked at our schedule,” Huggins said. “It is pretty hard, we are going to have to win some of those games that people don’t think we can win.”
The same can be said for Virginia Tech (1-1), which was the preseason pick to finish last in the 15-team ACC, which promises to get even tougher with the addition of defending national champion Louisville in 2014.
Any wins are vital to the Hokies with their schedule, but at least they were able to provide a retirement gift to Jim Weaver, who announced his intentions on Tuesday to retire as athletic director at the end of this month.
“It was a good day to give him a victory over West Virginia, that is a good retirement package from the men’s basketball team,” said Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson, who was hired to replace the fired-Seth Greenberg by Weaver prior to last season. “You guys know how much he means to me, giving me an opportunity here at Virginia Tech and he will be sorely missed by me.”
Virginia Tech, which had lost its opener by a point to South Carolina-Upstate, leaned on four newcomers, three freshmen and a transfer, a quartet that combined for 64 points to help the Hokies get the win.
While depending on youngsters — who are not named Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle — can be dangerous in the competitive world of Division I basketball, that is the path that the Hokies — and Mountaineers — have chosen to take.
That means there will be some good times, and not such good times ahead for both teams.
“I think it is a sign we have got to continue to get better,” Virginia Tech second year head coach James Johnson said. “We have some young guys that can do some things, we have got to hang in there.
“It is going to be up and down for them, but at least we have multiple guys that if one guy is down we have got some other guys that may be able to step up. Tonight we were able to get those three guys going so that was a very encouraging.”
Both teams had tough seasons in 2012-13, each finishing with 13-19 records. Little is expected from either club this season, where reaching .500 might be considered a success.
Virginia Tech fell behind by 17 points in the first half, but pulled within five at the break, and built a 10-point lead in the final 20 minutes, eventually holding on for a five-point win.
What stood out most was the extra emphasis officials are placing on keeping the game clean, which was evident when the two teams were called for 53 fouls, took 71 free throws, while three players fouled out and another six finished the game with four fouls.
“We are kind of getting used to it,” said Virginia Tech Adam Smith, of a game that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours. “It is a new style of play and we have just been adjusting and so has every other team so we are just trying to use it to our advantage and stay within the system.”
Johnson, as the winning coach, seemed happy with the way this particular game was called. Of course, his Hokies were 30-for-38 from the charity stripe.
“I thought it was an well officiated game, like they all are,” Johnson said. “It is tough, both teams are driving the ball to the hole....We are playing fast and getting up and down the floor and attacking the basket, I thought it was a well officiated game.”
Huggins, who came out on the short end, wasn’t so sure. Of course, his Mountaineers made just 21-of-33 from the charity stripe.
“That is the way it is going to get called, I guess,” Huggins said. “I wish I had an answer. I understand what they are trying to do. Consistency would help so everything is called the same all the time.
“They are trying to feel their way through it just like we are, I guess. They have never called the game that way before either. It is what it is.”
Huggins has a collection of athletes who will listen and follow his lead, but too often when the Mountaineers are left on their own, the results show.
“The frustrating thing is I can’t make adjustments because I can’t get five guys to understand, I can’t do it on the fly, it has to be after a timeout,” Huggins said. “Then there are times we don’t even do it after a timeout just because they don’t know.
“We are pretty vanilla right now. We haven’t put a lot of stuff in because what is the use putting stuff in if we can’t do what we have been trying to do.”
Johnson, who has 14 wins in his second season as a head coach, was able to prove victorious against Huggins, the wily veteran, who has 724 victories in 32 years on the sidelines.
“They just kept fighting, our guys just kept fighting, they didn’t go in the tank,” Johnson said. “They let the last game go, they weren’t worried about that. All they kept talking about out here in the huddle was the next play.
“This is a long game, let’s get to the next play, let’s chip away at this thing.”
It worked for the Hokies, but not for the Mountaineers. Huggins has reached a point in his career where he doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticism of his teams, sounding very much like a father trying to guide his children through life.
He simply wants his players to listen to what he has to say, and then do what he says, without the constant reminders.
“It is like your kids, you try to do the best job you possibly can at telling your kids what is going to happen,” said Huggins, who called four passes by center Kevin Noreen ‘horrible’ and lamented ‘at least 106’ missed layups by the Mountaineers, who had 13 shots blocked by the Hokies. “Most of the time they don’t listen either because you have already been through it.
“So you tell them not to make the same mistakes I did and they just go make the mistakes their parents make because that is what it is.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org