By Cam Huffman
Bob Huggins has read the e-mails, heard the talk around the Coliseum and even opened the letters.
But West Virginia University’s sixth-year head basketball coach refused to listen to the calls from fans to give up on senior forward Deniz Kilicli.
“I’ve been very tempted to save all the letters I get from guys that know how to coach better than I do and know a lot more about Deniz than I know,” said Huggins. “Maybe we should just take a month and evaluate their job and what kind of work they’re doing. Then we can write them a letter about what kind of job they’re doing and what kind of job their employees are doing. In some of those cases, it would be how well they cook their french fries at McDonald’s. You can overcook those, you know.”
Fortunately for the coal mines, factories, schools and, of course, McDonald’s around the Mountain State, Huggins and his assistants aren’t likely to be walking around with clipboards taking notes anytime soon. Kilicli silenced the critics on his own.
In Saturday’s 66-64 win over Texas Tech, one that improved the Mountaineers’ record to 13-12 overall and 6-6 in Big 12 play, the WVU big man put on a show, scoring 25 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking a shot.
“Obviously, Deniz played very well,” said Huggins. “If we could pass the ball better, I think he could have got 40 (points). He did a great job of sealing, and I thought he was open quite a few more times than what we actually did get him the ball.”
Kilicli’s senior season hasn’t exactly been a storybook ending to his Mountaineer career. Expected to be a huge factor on this year’s team, the Istanbul, Turkey, native scored just 11 points in WVU’s first two games of the season and then went through a stretch in December where he scored only 16 points in five games, including being held scoreless in a couple of contests.
Kilicli’s minutes began to decrease, and he became an almost invisible part of the Mountaineer attack. As his production waned, the criticism mounted.
Recently, though, Kilicli has come on strong. He’s averaged 15 points per game over the last four contests, and he was quick to credit his coach for sticking by his side.
“Deniz and I have always had a good relationship,” said Huggins. “We had a good relationship when he didn’t speak English. I didn’t know what he was saying, but he’d always hug me. So I thought that was all right.
“He came in and we talked for about 25 minutes,” the coach continued of a recent visit. “At the end of the day, he’s not a quitter. Everybody gets frustrated. I may be at the head of the class when it comes to frustration, but he’s not a quitter.”
Huggins isn’t ready to take credit for Kilicli’s turnaround and start working as a psychologist on the side. He explained that the reason he stuck by his big senior is that he really didn’t have much of a choice.
“The truth of the matter is, in a lot of instances, how are we going to score without Deniz?” Huggins asked. “The other thing he does is he gets other people open, because (opponents) have to help. I think Eron Harris has been a recipient of having two guys have to guard (Deniz).
“The other thing that people don’t appreciate is that he’s our best guy at helping on ball screens. He’s our only big that can trap a ball screen. We ask him to do a whole lot of stuff.”
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Kilicli and his teammates are still trying to get over the hump and win a game against one of the top teams in the Mountaineers’ new league. All six Big 12 wins that WVU has under its belt to this point have come against one of the three bottom teams in the conference — Texas, Texas Tech and TCU.
WVU will get a chance to change that tonight, though, when it plays its third Big Monday game of the season on the road against No. 10 Kansas State on ESPN. The game is scheduled for a 9 p.m. Eastern tip.
“We still think we have a shot at the NCAA Tournament,” said Kilicli, pointing out that his team will have three games against top 20 teams between now and the regular season finale on March 9. “We can do that. It’s just a matter of are we going to play the way we can play.”
Tonight’s game will mark Huggins’ return to Manhattan, Kan., where he served one season as the Wildcats’ head coach during the 2006-07 season.
His exit, to take the job at West Virginia, his alma mater, caused some hard feelings, but Huggins was well received by the Wildcat fans last year when his Mountaineers played KSU in Wichita, a double-overtime 85-80 Mountaineer victory.
The veteran coach isn’t sure what type of reception he’ll get tonight.
“If I had a list of 100 things to worry about, that might be 112,” said Huggins after Saturday’s victory. “I’ve got one day to get ready for a pretty good team so I can make sure I give our guys the resources to try to win.
“If they don’t (treat me well), they don’t. What am I going to do? The truth of the matter is, I’ve been gone for six years now. Unless those guys are on Jay Jacobs’ plan of graduation, they’re probably gone,” he concluded, throwing in a jab at WVU’s color analyst.
This will be the second meeting between WVU and KSU this season. The teams met at the WVU Coliseum on Jan. 12, when the Mountaineers blew a late lead and allowed the Wildcats to escape with a 65-64 victory.
— E-mail: chuffman@
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