By Cam Huffman
In five years as the West Virginia University basketball coach, Bob Huggins has taken his team to five NCAA Tournaments. In fact, the WVU graduate has taken 19 of his last 20 teams to the “Big Dance” — his 22-11 team his one season at Kansas State in 2006-07 the only exception.
If Huggins wants to add to those numbers, there’s very little room for error from his current group of Mountaineers.
Ten games into the 2012-13 campaign, WVU is just 5-5, and it’s only going to get more difficult from this point forward. Losses to No. 19 Gonzaga, conference foe Oklahoma and No. 3 Michigan can be explained, but falling to Davidson in the Old Spice Classic and blowing a double-digit lead in a 60-56 setback at Duquesne are harder for fans — and coaches — to accept.
The wins — Marist, Virginia Military, Marshall, Virginia Tech and Oakland — don’t seem to be ones that will turn the heads of the NCAA selection committee, either.
“Our best win to date is probably Virginia Tech (which came to Morgantown undefeated before falling 68-67 to WVU), but it depends on what they do the rest of the year,” said Huggins. “It’s so early, who knows who’s going to do what? I think the Oakland win (a 76-71 Mountaineer victory on Wednesday) at the end of the day will be a good win for us.”
With conference play just around the corner — the Mountaineers begin their first season in the Big 12 by hosting Oklahoma on Jan. 5 — there will be plenty of opportunities for signature victories, but first WVU needs to finish the nonconference portion of its schedule strong, beginning with today’s 4 p.m. meeting with Radford, which will air live on Root Sports.
“We’ve got to win games,” said Huggins, who has only coached two teams since 1986 that have failed to reach the 20-win plateau — the 1991 Cincinnati squad that went 18-12 and the 2003 Bearcats that went 17-12 but still made the NCAA Tournament. “It’s pretty important for the rest of the year, I would think. We’ve got three (straight) games at home (today, Dec. 30 against Eastern Kentucky and Jan. 5 against Oklahoma), and it would be nice to have a four-game winning streak here at home getting ready to go on the road.”
Radford will bring a 5-6 record to the WVU Coliseum, but it’s been competitive in almost every game. Four of its six losses — which came at the hands of Wake Forest, Towson, Eastern Kentucky, Delaware, William & Mary and Charlotte — have been by fewer than 10 points, and sophomore guard Javonte Green has been impressive, averaging 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
“It’s pretty much the same thing we’ve been seeing, a lot of dribble-drives and a lot of ball screens,” said Huggins of the Highlanders’ offensive attack. “They’ve got really good quickness on the perimeter. They’re a little small inside but a really athletic group.”
One of those athletes is sophomore guard Kyle Noreen. If that name sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. He’s the 6-foot-5, 200-pound younger brother of WVU’s Kevin Noreen.
“He played point guard in high school, but now he’s more of a 3 (guard),” said the elder Noreen of his little brother, who’s averaging 4.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. “He really does everything well. He’s a Jack-of-all-trades sort of a guy. He can shoot, he can drive and he’s pretty athletic. I think he’s the second-leading rebounder for Radford.
“He’s just my little brother. It will be like the old days, except we won’t be on the same team. This will be something new for both of us.”
The entire Noreen family — parents Jerry and Karen, as well as an uncle and a cousin — will make the trip to Morgantown for the special occasion, and Huggins said he can tell that his Noreen is excited.
“He got a haircut for the whole deal,” he joked of Kevin’s new short style.
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After WVU’s 81-66 loss to Michigan in Brooklyn, N.Y., last Saturday, Huggins called out his team for not putting in the extra work before and after practice.
The veteran coach said he’s seen a difference in the work ethic over the last week, but he said the problems won’t be corrected overnight.
“When I was growing up, my neighbor would stay about once a month after practice and shoot with me and figured he ought to be able to shoot like I could,” said Huggins. “But it’s not like that. You’ve got to be in there every day.
“It’s like a guy said, ‘Working hard doesn’t guarantee success, but it gives you a better chance.’ There’s a lot to that.”