Huggins steps closer to Final Four
The Huggy Bear is one win away.
Bob Huggins' lone appearance in the Final Four came 18 years ago, when, in his third season at Cincinnati, he led the Bearcats to an improbable berth to the last quartet standing.
He went to the Elite Eight four years later, in 1996, but hasn’t truly sniffed the Final Four in more than a decade.
"I don’t look backwards,” Huggins said after Thursday night’s 69-56 Sweet 16 victory by West Virginia against Washington.
Now, all that stands in the way for Huggins and the Mountaineers are the mighty Kentucky Wildcats — one of two No. 1 seeds left in the field.
Huggins, 56, is a West Virginia guy.
His parents grew up in Morgantown, W.Va., he grew up in Morgantown and played three years at the school from 1975 to 1977.
"I know what this means for the school, the state and the community,” Huggins said.
But when he was hired three years ago to replace John Beilein as coach, there was no way anyone could have predicted this.
"He told us that we were going to win a national championship the first time we met him,” Mountaineers senior Cam Thoroughman said.
Not even Thoroughman truly believed it on that day.
But Thoroughman and his teammates have now been to three consecutive NCAA tournaments since Huggins’ arrival – including a Sweet 16 and this year’s Elite Eight run.
"I wouldn’t have thought I’d be standing here today one win away from going to the Final Four,” West Virginia junior guard Joe Mazzulla said. "But you have to give him credit. He didn’t come in and impose his will and change everything. He met all of us Beilein recruits halfway.”
Huggins has this program one victory away from advancing to its first Final Four since 1959.
"Coach came back here to win a national championship,” said West Virginia assistant Erik Martin, who was on Huggins’ Final Four team in 1992. "He feels like he’s got unfinished business back at Cincinnati.”
No one figured he’d be on the brink with a bunch of Beilein recruits.
Under Beilein, cerebral guys like Da’Sean Butler, Wellington Smith, Mazzulla, John Flowers and Thoroughman were taught to think the game first and then react — a complete 180 from Huggins’ approach.
"I had to completely change my game,” Mazzulla said. "I was a finesse point guard before he got here.”
But Huggins has brought the toughness out of Mazzulla, has helped turn Butler into one of the elite players in the country and brought in his own guys – Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones, Casey Mitchell and Deniz Kilicli.
"It’s been a long journey,” Butler said following the win against Washington. "We’ve gone from a team picked to finish last in the Big East every year because of our style of play and the fact we didn’t recruit elite players to winning the Big East tournament and being one game away from the Final Four.
"I can’t complain at all. I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
The team’s point guard situation wasn’t enviable this season to begin with – and it took even more of a hit when starter Darryl “Truck” Bryant went down with a season-ending foot injury just days ago.
It was Butler and Ebanks taking over much of the ball-handling duties against the small and athletic Huskies. The Mountaineers struggled early with 13 first-half turnovers.
"It was a struggle,” Butler said. "I’m not going to lie to you. I hate having to bring the ball up.”
But the Mountaineers' length — they started four players who are 6-foot-7 or taller — bothered Washington. West Virginia finished with 23 offensive rebounds and a 49-29 advantage on the glass.
Now, Huggins will have to get past one of his former rivals from back in the Conference USA days, former Memphis coach John Calipari, to get to Indianapolis – the site of next week’s Final Four.
"He’s night and day from what he used to be,” Martin said. "He’s really mellowed out.”
Huggins has been through a heart attack and being forced out at Cincinnati. He got a second chance at Kansas State, but left Manhattan, Kan., after one season to go back home.
"He may not show any emotion,” Martin said. "But I know how much this would mean to him to get back.”
Nearly two decades later.