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April 18, 2010

The vote's in: It's Huggs' state

MORGANTOWN — It took a man with experience, patience and a cool hand to guide the West Virginia basketball team to the Final Four.

It took Bob Huggins.

Faced with numerous obstacles before the season even started, Huggins led the Mountaineers to their first Final Four in 51 seasons, their first-ever Big East tournament championship and a school-record 31 wins.

To do it was a test of survival because a Mountaineers team that was preseason-ranked No. 8 — only the third time in school history a WVU team was preseason ranked in the top 10 — faced adversity before the season even started.

Yet Huggins and his players never panicked.

“As you get older, you get a little more rational,” said Huggins, who was voted the Furfari Award winner as the state’s College Coach of the Year. “I thought we had a chance to be good from the beginning. We had some things happen, but it’s not like I haven’t been through things like that before.”

Last summer, WVU point guards Joe Mazzulla and Darryl “Truck” Bryant were suspended for breaking team rules and had to work their way back onto the team. They were both reinstated before the season began.

Once the season started, star sophomore forward Devin Ebanks was missing in action because of personal issues that were never revealed. Ebanks missed the team’s first three games and then came off the bench in the first three games of his return.

There were more hurdles.

Mazzulla was still nursing a shoulder injury from the prior season and played sparingly early on. Until midway through the season, the left-hander could only shoot with his right hand.

Just eight games into the season, Bryant went down with an ankle injury, forcing Huggins to go with a starting lineup of five forwards for four games.

Huggins was also without freshman forward Deniz Kilicli, who was suspended for the first 20 games of the season by the NCAA because it was ruled he had played with a professional while he was in high school in his native land of Turkey.

“I don’t know there is such a thing as an even-keeled kind of season,” Huggins said. “Every season is going to have its share of ups and downs. I never once thought the things we had to go through were dire. We had been through it all before, and you draw off that experience.”

The Mountaineers did more than just push on. They thrived.

Through it all, the Mountaineers began the season 11-0 — the fourth-best start in school history — and won the 76 Classic in November.

“We started 11-0 and then we ran into a very good Purdue team that was playing very well,” Huggins said. “We lost to a very good Syracuse team by one point. We missed some free throws and some shots in that game.

“We won our first 11 games, and then won 10 games before losing to Duke. There are ebbs and flows that are going to come with every season, but it’s how you react to it that matters.”

For Huggins, that simply meant going to work every day and preparing his team with the players who were available.

“You learn to play things out,” he said. “In any year, there are going to be highs and lows, but if you react in a positive manner, more times than not, something positive will happen.

“There was never a sense of panic from anybody. That was important. No one panicked. We remained consistent.”

It’s the third consecutive season Huggins has won the award in a year that saw many contenders.

WVU women’s basketball coach Mike Carey was second in the voting. Carey guided the Mountaineers to a 25-8 record and a No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament. The Mountaineers fell to top-ranked Connecticut in the Big East finals. WVU went on to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

West Liberty football coach Roger Waialae was third in the voting after guiding the Hilltoppers to an 11-2 overall record and a trip to the second round of the Division II playoffs. West Liberty finished a perfect 8-0 in the West Virginia Conference.

Mountain State coach Bob Bolen, who won the award in 2004, was also among the finalists, according to WVSWA secretary-treaurer Doug Huff.

The award will be presented at the 64th annual Victory Awards Dinner on May 2 at the Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown.

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