By Cam Huffman
Bob Huggins spent only one season at Kansas State, leading the Wildcat basketball team to a 23-12 finish and a 10-6 mark in Big 12 play during the 2006-07 season. He then left to return to West Virginia University, his alma mater.
But the impact he had on the KSU program was larger than most would expect. The Wildcats had the most wins they’d had since the 1987-88 season, and Huggins brought some top talent to Manhattan, Kan., recruiting stars like Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. In a single season, Manhattan became known as “Huggieville,” and fans were understandably upset when Huggins made the decision to leave and return to the school he’s always loved.
Those memories are sure to come flooding back for Huggins when WVU hosts Kansas State today at 1:30 p.m. The game will air live locally on WOAY television.
Huggins has met up with the Wildcats one other time since leaving Manhattan, an 85-80 Mountaineer win in double-overtime in the Wichita Wildcat Classic last December. But this meeting won’t have nearly the same emotions.
Frank Martin, a former Huggins assistant who took over the KSU program when Huggins came to Morgantown, left during the offseason to take the head coaching job at South Carolina. Bruce Weber, who went to six NCAA Tournaments in nine years at Illinois, including finishing as the runner-up in 2005, is now in charge, and Huggins’ connections to the program have faded away.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be a challenge. Ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press Top 25, the Wildcats are 12-2 overall, with the only losses coming to No. 4 Michigan and No. 14 Gonzaga. KSU defeated No. 22 Oklahoma State 73-67 its last time out.
Leading the way is senior guard Rodney McGruger, who’s averaging 14.7 points and 5.5 rebounds, and sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez who’s averaging 9.5 points and a team-best 4.6 assists per outing.
Huggins, though, is more concerned about his own squad, which holds a disappointing 8-6 overall mark.
WVU, though, has won four of its last five games and picked up its first-ever Big 12 win Wednesday on the road at Texas, a 57-53 overtime victory.
Senior forward Deniz Kilicli was confident that win could be the spark that gets the Mountaineers headed in the right direction.
“I’m tired of losing,” he said. “I hate losing. Everybody does. You can never get used to that mood. It’s not sad or anything, it’s just a weird mood. You can’t be depressed and sad and lose again, so you have to keep yourself up. But I hate that. It was like a vacation for a couple minutes (beating Texas). Now we have to keep it going.”
After watching his team blow a double-digit lead in the second half last Saturday at home against Oklahoma — WVU’s first-ever Big 12 basketball game — Huggins was looking for motivation when he received a text message from one of his former managers at Cincinnati, Joe Roberts. The message simply said, “Coach, find a way.”
It was a reminder to Huggins of his 1987-88 team that was in the midst of a streak of three losses in six games when Huggins told his team that it had to “find a way,” no matter what it took to win.
The speech eventually became a rallying cry, and one of the custodians at UC went to his wood shop and made a sign that read, “Find a way,” that he hung above the locker room door.
Bearcat players began touching the sign on the way in and out of the locker room for motivation and eventually took it with them on the road. With the sign as its new good luck charm, Cincinnati won its final nine regular season games and then captured a first-round victory over Northern Arizona in the NCAA Tournament.
Ironically, that Bearcat team ended up losing to West Virginia on Jarrod West’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent the Mountaineers into the Sweet 16, but the “find a way” motto was something that Huggins shared with his WVU team after receiving that text.
“The three years I was here before this team, we always found a way,” said Kilicli, who seemed to fully understand the message. “Maybe some days you aren’t going to shoot it well. Maybe some days you’re going to start out awful, but you can always find a way.”
For this year’s club, finding a way is focused largely on rebounding. West Virginia is last in the Big 12 in field goal percentage, shooting just 39 percent from the field, but in the win over the Longhorns, the Mountaineers turned 17 offensive rebounds into 10 second-chance points and outrebounded the home team 45-39.
“They really weren’t my team before,” said Huggins. “We didn’t compete the way we needed to compete. We competed hard (against Texas).
“I don’t know that this team’s ever going to be a great shooting team. Hopefully we can become a good shooting team. But we can become a very good rebounding team. That’s what we need to do and what our focus needs to continue to be.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.