By Cam Huffman
When West Virginia University head basketball coach Bob Huggins was recruiting Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball, Kevin Noreen, out of Minnesota Transitions Charter School in Minneapolis, the all-time leading scorer in Minnesota high school history asked the veteran coach one simple question.
“Can I play here?” the 6-foot-10 forward, who averaged 38.6 points and 16.5 rebounds per game on the Class A state championship squad, inquired.
Huggs didn’t point to his numbers, which included three straight 1,000-point seasons, his imposing size or even his awards, which included being named the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Player of the Year. He instead told the high school senior that only he could answer that question.
After Saturday’s game, Noreen no longer has to wonder.
Noreen was injured during his first season in Morgantown, playing only seven games before undergoing knee surgery, and he averaged only 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last year before he broke his left ankle after 23 games and was on the sidelines the rest of the year.
This year, he had a grand total of eight points through the first six games, and his question seemed legitimate.
In the 68-67 win over Virginia Tech, though, everything came together. Noreen had six points and eight rebounds at halftime, and in the second half he extended his game even further, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to force the Hokies to guard him on the perimeter.
Virginia Tech’s coaches simply shook their heads in disbelief after the first long ball, but after the second, they realized they couldn’t sit back in the paint and let him have that shot any longer.
“If they don’t do (come out and guard me), it really slows down the offense,” Noreen explained. “I don’t want to be a liability out there. If they cover me a little more, it opens up the wings for the other guys. So being able to make that shot is big.”
The 3-pointers shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Noreen’s official biography on the WVUSports.com website calls him an “outstanding perimeter shooter,” and he finished his high school career No. 3 on Minnesota’s all-time list of 3-point shooters. But he’s been hesitant to pull the trigger at the college level.
“We’ve been telling him to shoot the ball forever,” said sophomore guard Juwan Staten. “He was a great shooter coming in. He knocks down shots in practice and he’s always shooting after practice. But he’s never really done it in a game. For him to come out and step up was big.”
Scoring inside and out, and seemingly always in the right spot to corral a carom off the rim, Noreen finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, helping to hand Virginia Tech its first loss of the season.
“This was the best game of my college career,” said Noreen after the game. “It was just one of those days. Going into it, Coach (Huggins) was saying we needed the win. It was a make-or-break game for us.
“I’m just so happy that I could help out the team. I pretty much go into every practice thinking that I don’t want to let other guys down. That’s really my mindset on the floor.”
Let down his teammates?
Not a chance, according to Huggins. In fact, the sixth-year Mountaineer coach said the other WVU players could learn a lot from Noreen’s example.
“If there’s kids out there that want to be a basketball player, he’s a great role model,” he said. “He doesn’t play above the rim, he can’t rebound above the rim but he shoots 1,000 shots a day.
“Over the years, I’ve had some wonderful guys and some hard working guys. I don’t know that I’ve had anybody put more time in than what Kevin Noreen puts in. I’ve had guys that were more physically talented than what he is, but he’s in the office between classes and after classes looking at film and trying to figure things out. He listens. If we had some other guys who listened and were as committed as he is, we’d have some really, really good players.”
Huggins’ treadmill in practice has become a thing of legend, as well as a home away from home for WVU players when they make mistakes. And during games, ESPN cameras love shots of Huggins screaming at one of his athletes about as much as they’re drawn to the guy in the Santa suit in the third row.
But when it comes to Noreen, the “Huggy Bear” doesn’t have to do much of either.
“I get on him a little bit, but not very much,” Huggins laughed. “Honestly, I get on him for not doing things, like not shooting the ball. You can’t imagine how many shots he takes. He takes a ton of shots.
“He wants to win. He’s constantly in the practice facility. If you come in the practice facility during the day, and he’s not in class, he’s in there. If you come in at night, he’s in there. He really wants to be a good player.”
Can Noreen play at West Virginia? Ask Virginia Tech.
But the next step, Huggins said, is to play that way all the time.
“I hope this is something for Kevin that he’ll feel a lot more comfoftable stepping into shots,” he concluded. “Because he’s going to get shots.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.