29 years of glory for Coach Bob Huggins

CANTON, Ohio —
College basketball has certainly changed in the 29 years Bob Huggins has been a head coach, but it’s fair to say Huggins has adapted.

His 691 wins rank seventh among active coaches, a number that Huggins said Monday “just means I’m old.”

He’s young enough to remember many of the big victories and certainly the losses, too, and he shared stories of both Monday when he addressed the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club here. His West Virginia team’s 2011 season ended with a round of 32 loss to Kentucky, which WVU had beaten in the regional finals the previous season.

That change in fortune was hard for the coach to swallow, but it was his discussion of another change that stood out. Even though it may have benefitted West Virginia this year, Huggins made it clear could do without the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 68 teams and the addition of the “First Four” concept that included a puzzling scheduling decision that left fifth-seeded West Virginia unsure of its opponent until late Tuesday night. Clemson had to beat UAB in Dayton in that game, then immediately board a flight for Tampa and a 12:15 p.m. Thursday game against the Mountaineers.

“I don’t like it,” Huggins said. “I didn’t like sitting there waiting to see who was going to win. I don’t know how it was fair for them to play a game and then jump on a plane and have only a day to prepare. And they had to come in and do the media stuff, which is an all-day deal now. By the time you do your mandatory shoot-around and your other (media obligations) it’s a long day.”

Huggins’ speech Monday marked what’s become an annual return to what could be considered his home state. Though he was born in Morgantown and played at West Virginia, he was the 1972 Ohio high school player of the year while playing for his father at Indian Valley South High School, about 30 miles southeast of Canton. And his head-coaching career started at Walsh University in North Canton before he took Akron to its first Division I NCAA Tournament and then became the coach at Cincinnati. He coached the Bearcats from 1990 to 2005 and took them to the 1992 Final Four.

He coached one year at Kansas State before taking over at his alma mater and joining Cincinnati and its current coach, former Huggins assistant Mick Cronin, in the Big East. Cincinnati was in Conference USA during Huggins’ tenure.

“I know the Big East is the toughest league in college basketball,” Huggins said. “I think this year there were seven Big East teams in the final AP Top 25 and five of the top seven were in the Big East. It’s such a good league that every time a coach in the league gets fired I’m quick to recommend the worst coach I know for the job. We can’t have any more good teams.”

Among other topics Huggins discussed during his speech and in a short following:

* Huggins said he “absolutely” loves to recruit in Ohio “and I’d really like to get in here more.” His 2011 recruiting class includes 6-foot-10 Pat Forsythe of Brunswick, Ohio, and the Mountaineers are reportedly in the mix for several top 2012 Ohio prospects, though Huggins can’t comment on recruits. He said he “loves” Ohio State super-freshman Jared Sullinger “as a player and as a person, but recruiting him was tough. It was a done deal at Ohio State. You have to know when to walk away.”

* With the deadline approaching this weekend for underclassmen who declared for the NBA Draft but didn’t hire agents to withdraw, Huggins said he believes Kevin Jones plans to return to West Virginia but can’t say for sure. On Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, a rumored target of the Cavaliers in the lottery, Huggins said “he was really, really good against us.”

* Huggins addressed the NBA rule of requiring players to play one year of college basketball before being draft-eligible both during his speech and afterward. Though he said freshmen “are kids playing against men” in big-time college basketball,  recruiting such possible one-and-done players “depends on the situation. When I had DeMar Johnson (at Cincinnati) we should have won the national championship. If Kenyon (Martin) doesn’t get hurt, we win the national championship. In that case it was the right thing to do. I think it depends on the situation and what your needs are.”

* More on the one-and-done situation: “One year is not enough in most cases. The NBA and the NCAA have to get together and figure out what the best solution is. People talk about the kids being ready for the competition in the NBA but I just don’t think many of them are prepared socially. If I signed for $3 million as an 18-year-old I don’t think I would have handled it real well. Being on a college campus prepares these guys for life.”

* Asked about his thoughts on the United States catching terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, Huggins said, “I was driving up here this morning and there were two overpasses where guys were standing on the overpass waving the American flag. It’s a great morning, a great thing. It’s long overdue.”