Campus Connection: Sweet 16 Notebook

  • By John Antonik
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  • March 22, 2017 02:21 PM
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SAN JOSE, Calif. - Some notes, quotes and tidbits from San Jose as the West Virginia University men’s basketball team continues its preparations for Thursday night’s West Regional semifinal against No. 1-seeded Gonzaga at the Shark Tank.
* On the dynamics of facing Gonzaga’s seven-foot twin towers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins … “One of them is 7-1, 300 pounds and he’s a block guy,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of Karnowski. “Then they bring in another 7-footer that’s got good footwork and is really agile and skilled. And then they’ve got two 6-10s they play at power forward. They’re big.”
So, how will Huggins plan to counter Gonzaga’s tremendous size advantage inside?
“Hopefully, they have to change. We’ve played against size. Texas had great size. You’ve got to block out a little higher and do a better job of not letting them get you underneath the basket where they can reach overtop of you,” he said. “They’re averaging almost 41 rebounds a game.”
* An underrated aspect of this year’s Mountaineer team has been its ability to pass the basketball, particularly in half-court situations. Huggins was asked about that earlier this week.
“The biggest reason is they want to win,” he said. “You show them film of guys being open and not being able to deliver them the ball and for the most part, we’ve got a bunch of guys that take that to heart.
“We’ve tried a little more to make sure we’ve got the ball in the right guys’ hands as well. By and large it’s them wanting to get better and wanting to win.”
* The Mountaineers have performed well this year in some of the most difficult venues in the country, defeating Virginia in Charlottesville, Iowa State in Ames and taking Kansas down to the wire in Lawrence before falling in overtime.
Huggins said he believes playing in those difficult environments has made his team battle-hardened heading into Thursday night’s game against the Bulldogs.
“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that have played in a bunch of different venues before big crowds. I don’t think that really affects them that much,” he said. “Then you look at our league, where did we go that there wasn’t much of a crowd? I don’t think that really affects our guys that much. The Kansas game we learned a little bit. Hopefully there were other people involved in the game that learned as well.”
Huggins said when West Virginia is at its best, it is affecting other teams with its pressure, athletic ability and relentless nature.
“I think our footspeed is pretty good,” he said. “I think we’ve got some guys that are pretty good on-the-ball defenders.”
* Huggins was asked if he can see any similarities with this year’s team and the 2010 squad that won a school-record 31 games, defeated Kentucky in the East Region finals and advanced to the Final Four for just the second time in school history.

He indicated that team was considerably different in terms of style and makeup.
“I think the 2010 group was more skilled and more versatile,” he admitted. “When you can take a 6-9 guy like Devin Ebanks and put him on point guards … we don’t have any bigs like that. We don’t have anybody who is as good a scorer as Da’Sean Butler was or anybody who has an understanding of how to play the way Da’Sean did. They can guard more ways. They rebound the ball pretty well.
“When you think about the 2010 team, Da’Sean Butler has to be somewhere in the conversation of one of the better players we’ve had here. And Kevin Jones is the most decorated player since Rod Thorn in terms of All-America honors and those kind of things, and that doesn’t say anything about Devin, who was an NBA player. That team just wasn’t very big, but they were very, very skilled.”
Outgoing forward John Flowers also provided an off-the-court aspect that brought that team closer together.
“The majority of the goofy stuff came from John,” Huggins said. “You take John out of the equation and Da’ and Joe (Mazzulla), it would have just been business as usual.
“This group has got Teyvon (Myers). Now Teyvon can’t afford a camera, but if he could, Teyvon would be another John Flowers.”
* At the beginning of this season, one of the biggest question marks surrounding this team was how it was going to carry on without forward Devin Williams, who chose to leave school a year early to pursue a professional career.
What Williams moving on has done is open the door for other players to blossom, specifically Elijah Macon and freshman Sagaba Konate.
“Devin was a heck of a player, and I think everybody would have certainly welcomed Devin (back). What I think it has done is it has really allowed Elijah (Macon) to grow and I think we’d all agree Elijah is a totally different player today than he was probably even when the season started,” Huggins pointed out.
“If you have Devin, you don’t get to see what Sags can do. I think Sags has got a world of ability and a great future ahead of him. And to have the ability to get him into games - and not just games but hard games that really mean something - is going to benefit him greatly,” Huggins. “That’s college basketball. Somebody leaves and somebody else steps up. Devin told me he sat down with Elijah and told him it was his turn to step up. I said, ‘Dev, do you think he will?’ He said, ‘Coach he will.’ Not that Devin is clairvoyant or anything, but Elijah has been pretty good.”
* Here is a pretty cool little look back at Kevin Pittsnogle from March Madness TV earlier today:
* Like a pitcher with several different pitches, Huggins’ basketball teams have always been able to throw multiple things at opposing teams. That is the case this year with the 1-3-1 zone defense that he has slipped in from time to time.
“We’ve just tried to figure out which deal works best,” he said. “In 2010, we played matchup (zone) and played it really well. We’ve tried to do that a little bit.”
* Huggins indicated he likes the overall approach this team has taken in postseason play following last year’s disappointing performance in Brooklyn, New York, against Stephen F. Austin.
“I would think they have learned a lot from last year,” Huggins said. “Our practices have been better. Our focus has been better and they’ve played in big games in really hard environments and played well. That part I don’t think bothers them.”
* The veteran coach was asked about late-game fouling situations and how much he goes over that with his players this week, “We foul enough without trying to,” he deadpanned.
* Former Huggins assistant coach Frank Martin has his South Carolina team in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. Huggins said he stopped watching Gonzaga tape long enough to catch South Carolina’s win against Duke on Sunday night.
“Really, the first Sweet 16 in school history I would have never thought that with the players that have gone through there,” Huggins said. “I’m really happy for Frank and his staff. I’m close to that whole staff.”
* If you look closely at the remaining teams in this year’s tournament, the bulk of them come from four of the Power 5 conferences - Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC.
There are two left from the Big East (Xavier and Butler), only one team remaining from the ACC (North Carolina) and West Coast Conference (Gonzaga).
Huggins believes that may be a sign of the times.
“I think the gap is going to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “(Mid-majors) can’t afford what we’re now allowed to do, in pretty much every way - travel and stipends. I look at what we’re doing now and I remember getting my $10 a month from (longtime WVU business manager) Joyce Bucklew because we didn’t have Sunday dinners (when he was a Mountaineer player). We missed four Sunday dinners and got $10, but I’m not bitter about it.”
* Huggins was asked about college basketball instituting a challenge system similar to what college football has in place. He said he is in favor of doing so. He also believes officials should be held accountable for their decisions in the same manner players and coaches are held accountable for theirs.
“I’ve said for years and years and years, the notion that (officials) are not part of the game is ridiculous,” he said. “You take 18-year-old kids that aren’t getting paid and they’re not a professional in any way shape or form and they mandatorily have to go to press conferences and answer questions when they kick the ball out of bounds or miss a shot or whatever. So, if the media requests an interview why shouldn’t they be held accountable just like coaches and players are?”
That’s a good question.
* And finally, it has been a very tough couple of months for the West Virginia basketball family. Veteran play-by-play man Tony Caridi recently lost his mother, Mary, to cancer and then his father, Joe, died yesterday as Tony was traveling out to San Jose.
Tony will call the games this week before returning to his native Lockport, New York, for his father’s funeral service.
Also, former basketball manager and devoted Mountaineer supporter Chris McPherson lost his lengthy battle with cancer last Saturday. Chris was the son of longtime WVU assistant men’s basketball coach Gary McPherson, the man responsible for recruiting Bob Huggins to West Virginia when he was a member of Sonny Moran’s staff.
For many years, Chris was a regular underneath the basket at the Coliseum for Mountaineer games.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Tony and his family, as well as Coach Mac, his wife, Peg, their daughter, Missy, and Chris' wife Patty.