The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

March 28, 2010

Huggs’ lofty goal still alive

Coach has West Virginia headed back to Final Four

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — On the day he was hired Bob Huggins told his alma mater he was back to win a national championship.

At West Virginia, that was quite a lofty goal.

The Mountaineers hadn’t advanced to the Final Four since 1959, when they were led by Jerry West. That 51-year drought flipped from an eternity in sports to a mere blip in the mind for the Mountaineers fans who came to celebrate — and sing.

West Virginia fans waited outside the Carrier Dome late Saturday night to serenade their team as the Final Four-bound Mountaineers boarded a bus so they could head back to home to Morgantown for a long-awaited night of celebration.

The fans belted out lyrics to the John Denver hit that’s become tied to the school.

“Country Roads, take me home. To the place I belong.”

They’ll be singing in Indianapolis this week when West Virginia plays in the Final Four. And years after he was nearly tossed in the coaching scrap heap, everyone is singing Huggins’ praises.

He’s two wins away from delivering on the promise he made in 2007.

“I talked to them about trying to be special,” Huggins said. “If we can somehow find a way to win a couple more, that will be really special.”

West Virginia just might be special. The Mountaineers, the Big East tournament champions, have won 10 straight games and controlled top-seeded Kentucky for almost all 40 minutes in a 73-66 victory in the East Regional final Saturday night.

“The wonderful thing about these guys is they never doubt,” Huggins said.

Huggins also never doubted he would be the coach to take West Virginia to the Final Four and put the team in position to play for a national championship, even as his career strayed from those country roads he holds close to his heart.

He made his niche molding Cincinnati into an NCAA tournament regular and made his only other Final Four trip in 1992. Huggins might still be there if not for a string of player arrests, a heart attack in 2002, and his drunken-driving arrest in 2004 that eventually led former Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher to force him out in 2005. He took a season off from coaching and then returned for one season at Kansas State where he reignited the Wildcats.

Huggins has done it all in his own unique way. He eschews game day suits for a warm-up jacket more suited for a fan in the stands. He usually places the palm of his hand on chin and appears bored during news conferences. But he can be a crackup with his deadpan delivery.

Asked how the Mountaineers have stayed so loose during the tournament, he replied, “Being around my effervescent personality all the time.”

He made all the right moves against a Wildcats team that will soon have its roster dispersed throughout the NBA. Huggins gave seldom-used Joe Mazzulla his first start of the season because Darryl “Truck” Bryant broke his foot this week during practice. Mazzulla responded with a career-high 17 points and was selected the East Regional MVP.

“Everything just went in my favor,” he said.

Huggins also mixed his defenses, using a 1-3-1 that closed the lanes to Kentucky’s speedy guards and forced them to settle for 3-pointers. The Wildcats missed their first 20 3-point attempts and didn’t sink one until late in the game.

“We didn’t give them any easy looks at the basket,” Mazzulla said. “I thought the 1-3-1 was a lot more physical than we’ve played in the past.”

They’ll get a few more days to work even more on their defense — a scary thought for any team in Indianapolis.

Huggins reminded the team of his promise to win a national championship and not settle for the Final Four. The Mountaineers got the message.

“That’s just the attitude that Huggs has instilled in,” Mazzulla said. “We have the mindset that we have 80 minutes left to really do something special.”

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