MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For a guy who has coached in 22 NCAA Tournaments encompassing 51 games, it’s only natural he would remember his very first one.
Sunday, following the announcement that his West Virginia University basketball team will be facing Bucknell in an NCAA first round game on Thursday afternoon in Buffalo, New York, Bob Huggins was asked what it was like to be a young coach in the tournament.
His mind drifted back to 1986, when he still wore dark suits and patterned ties like Gordon Gekko, and he took his Akron team made up of Division I castaways, walk-ons and ex-football players to the Big Dance in Minneapolis.
He was only 33 then, full of vim and vigor, and his underdog Zips were facing fifth-ranked Michigan right before its pre-Fab Five days.
And while Huggins may have exaggerated a little bit Michigan’s ranking and seeding (the Wolverines were a 2-seed, not a 1, and they were ranked fifth, not No. 1), the great storytellers always have a good story to tell, the devil sometimes being in the details.
One day Huggins will become a hall of fame basketball coach, and if there is ever a hall of fame for storytellers, he will be in that, too.
“The first time we go I was at the University of Akron and we were the lowest seed in the whole tournament playing the No. 1 seed Michigan,” he began. “At least I guess we were because Michigan was No. 1 in the country for the whole year. That was before the Fab Five, obviously. That was Gary Grant, Antoine Joubert, (Robert) Henderson, (Roy) Tarpley and that whole crew.
“I don’t know anything about them so I get on the phone and I call (Eldon) Miller at Ohio State and I say, ‘Coach, what can we do to beat them?’ He said, ‘You can’t beat them.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we can’t?’ He said, ‘You can’t.’
“I said, ‘Well, if we press them can we slow them down?’ He said no. I said, ‘Well, if we press them can we speed them up?’ He said no.
“So then I said, ‘So you don’t think we have any chance to win?’ He said, ‘I told you that.’ I said, ‘OK, thanks for your help!’”
Huggs, now on his own, began to pore through Michigan tape to look for any weaknesses he could detect in the Wolverines. There weren’t many, and the flaws he could find (or imagined) were what he showed his team.
“All I did was show our guys the stuff that they struggled with - which wasn’t very much,” Huggins said. “Then, we’re down two at halftime and we end up losing by four (six points, actually). We dropped it out of bounds a couple of times that we shouldn’t have but we were in the game.”
Afterward, Huggins looked at Michigan and some of the other top teams in the country and wondered how he was ever going to advance through the tournament playing teams like that every night.
They had McDonald’s All-Americans up and down their rosters and he was playing with Dan-Dee Potato Chip players of the week.
So, the next time he goes to the tournament with Cincinnati he’s got a team full of junior college stars and he blows right past the first round and makes it all the way to Minneapolis to the Final Four where he loses again to Michigan, 76-72.
Now, it’s no problem getting through the tournament when your guards are taller than 6-4 and can shoot and handle, your wings are taller than 6-7 and can soar through the air and your bigs are 6-10 and are capable of guarding all five positions on the floor.
“The next time we go to the NCAA Tournament we’re at Cincinnati and we go to the Final Four,” Huggins said. “I said, ‘Well this isn’t that hard.’ Then the next year we play (North) Carolina (in the Elite Eight) and some calls didn’t go in our favor at the end.
“Coach (Dean) Smith kicking the scorer’s table didn’t have anything to do with it,” Huggins added sarcastically, “but there were some things that didn’t go our way, and so we lose to them in overtime. They go on and win a national championship. We really felt like we could have been there.”
For the next 12 years, his Bearcat teams were right there knocking on the door.
No, this is not Gordon Gekko but rather a young Bob Huggins working the sidelines for Akron while his Zips faced fifth-ranked Michigan in the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Then at West Virginia, he inherited some good players from John Beilein and took the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 his first season in 2008. Two years later, he made it back to the Final Four in 2010 and two years ago took a team to another Sweet 16.
This year’s team - his 23rd team to make the tournament - has been ranked all year and earned one of the top 16 seeds in this year’s tournament.
Does this one have another one of those runs in it?
“The first thing we’ve got to do is get healthy,” Huggins explained. “Nate (Adrian) is not healthy. Teyvon (Myers) sprained his ankle and JC (Jevon Carter
) is not healthy. We’ve got to get healthy. That’s the biggest thing.
“Then, we’ve got to get back to being the aggressor,” he continued. “We’ve got to get back to dictating how the game is played. We haven’t done that. We’ve kind of let other people dictate style and pace. We’ve got to play the way we play.”
The process begins on Thursday when West Virginia faces a Bucknell team that possesses a different style than the teams the Mountaineers have faced since late December when Big 12 play began.
Huggins and his staff spent the entire night dissecting tape to get an idea what Bucknell does well, and, yes, what it doesn’t do well. And he didn’t have to call Eldon Miller this time.
“You go watch film to see conceptually what they’re trying to do and then you try and figure out conceptually what you can do to try and disrupt what they do,” Huggins said. “Then you look at what you think you can take advantage of. What matchups can you take advantage of? Where can we get the ball in areas where we think it’s hard for them to guard?
“Then, obviously, what are they going to do against man? What are they going to do against some sort of zone? With us, we’ve got to look at press breaker and see what they’re trying to do to break pressure.”
From there, it’s a matter of putting it all together and making it work.
Sometimes it works extremely well, as it did for Huggins back in 1992 and once again in 2010, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well, as it did last year when WVU was bounced from the tournament in the first round by Stephen F. Austin.
When you’ve done this as many times as Bob Huggins has, there’s a lot to remember - and, sometimes, a lot to forget.