It was Da’Sean Butler laying on the ground 50 weeks ago, writhing in pain, tears streaming down his cheeks as his coach, Bob Huggins, squatted over him, cradling him in his arms, consoling him about the injury he had sustained trying to win a national championship for West Virginia, who symbolized the end of a Mountaineer dream.
But, as much pain as Butler was feeling at that moment — Duke erasing the Mountaineers from the NCAA Tournament with a bombardment of unerring 3-point shots — Huggins would feel more in the aftermath, for once again he had been denied the chance to win college basketball’s biggest prize, and done so with one of his soldiers a casualty of the NCAA wars.
Huggins has done all there is to do on the basketball court, and most of the things you can do off it. He has won 690 games and taken home 10 conference titles. He’s been to the Final Four twice, but while the Pittsburgh Steelers have gotten “one for the thumb” Huggins is still awaiting his first championship ring.
And that pains him as he begins another March march into madness, facing a tired Clemson team today that had to play in on Tuesday.
You ask just how much winning one would mean, unsure of what answer you will get, for he often doesn’t give the obvious, PR approved answer when asked a rather direct, straight-forward question.
“It means a great deal to me, particularly being here,’’ Huggins said, here not being Tampa, but at West Virginia, his alma mater. “I’d like nothing more than to win a national championship for the people here in the state of West Virginia. I think that would be awesome.’’
So you ask him, almost ashamedly, for you this time you know the answer, whether it means so much that he obsesses over it.
“Do I act like I obsess?” he asks back, laughing as he asks it.
He is reminded that he acts like he obsesses over everything basketball, which in its own explains the treadmill that accompanies the team to the basketball court each practice day.
“You know, you learn that all you can do is the best you can,’’ Huggins continues. “There are a lot of things that happen that are kind of out of your control. I worry about the things that I have a chance to control. I don’t worry about that other stuff.’’
Maybe he should because injuries have been as much a part of his post-season disappointment as any other factor.
“We have had — I have had — some opportunities and we’ve had some crazy things happen,’’ Huggins said. “Kenyon (Martin) getting hurt, (Allen) Jackson getting hurt. I know in 2000 we had a legitimate shot until Kenyon went down.’’
Both of those occurred when Huggins was the most popular thing in Cincinnati this side of Skyline Chili. In 2000 his team was No. 1 and expected to win the title but Martin, who remains a fixture in the NBA today, broke his leg during the Conference USA Tournament.
Jackson’s injury occurred during the 2003 NCAA Tournament when his team lost the regional final to North Carolina. That all being preceded by point guard Keith LeGree suffering a stress fracture in his foot and playing in the regional final loss to Mississippi State.
And then there was Butler last year, whose injury had no effect on the outcome of the game that already had been lost, but left a lasting impression upon Huggins and the state of West Virginia, which had fallen in love with the player and the team.
Now the journey begins again. Everyone is healthy, at least everyone but freshman Kevin Noreen, who suffered a mid-season fracture.
While everyone is healthy, not everyone who was penciled in to be here is present, center Danny Jennings having walked out at halftime of a mid-season game and the entire freshman class being wiped out either for disciplinary reasons, academic, injury or illness.
Can this team make a run, can it find the magic without Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith?
Really, if you think of it, that’s the only difference from last year. Not much, huh?
“Obviously our margin for error is not what it was a year ago,’’ Huggins said. “A year ago we scored whatever we scored, 14 points or something in the first half against Villanova, and had enough firepower to come back and win. I’m not sure we can do that. We have to do a whole lot more things right.’’
That doesn’t mean they can’t make those things go right.
“You know, it’s funny that you ask that because about half an hour ago I told them that when we lost Casey (Mitchell) for those three games (to a suspension), I stood in front of them and said, ‘We’re going to go win.’ And I just told them (Tuesday), there isn’t any reason why we can’t go win.
“When you think about some of the people that we’ve beaten and some of the players that we’ve played against, we’re not going to play against anybody better than Kemba Walker. To me, he’s the best player in the country. And we’re not going to play against guards that are better than Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough. We’re going to play against some probably that are as good, but we’re not going to play against anybody better.’’
While all that is true, in many ways this comes down to whether or not they can find someone who can do for five games what Butler did all last year.
“We’re a much different team. I think we obviously relied on Da’Sean and his offensive ability, where this year it’s more spread out,” Mazzulla said. “And we just take the experience, and we have to take the confidence. We really went on a run starting in the NCAA Tournament last year, and that’s something we’re looking to do this year.”
“Early in the year we were in a real close game with Minnesota and I think everybody was looking for Da’Sean and Da’Sean wasn’t there. I think we haven’t had the kind of a guy to step up , someone we are going to throw the ball to,” Huggins said.
“It’s been K.J. at times, it’s been Joe Mazzulla at times, it’s been Casey (Mitchell) at times, it’s been Truck Bryant at times. Actually, it’s been Deniz (Kilicli) at times. In a way it’s made us better because, hopefully, it makes us a little harder to scout. But, at the same time you want to know who everybody has confidence in, and I think what it is, it’s pretty much whoever is playing well that day.”
With WVU, it better be five players playing well or they’re going home.