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Huggins’ First Season May be Just the Beginning

March 29, 2008

If his first season as head coach of the West Virginia University men’s basketball season is any future indicator, Mountaineers buffs could be in for a fun ride.

WVU ended the season Thursday night with an overtime loss to Ohio’s best team, Xavier, in the Sweet Sixteen. It was a game of would of, could of, should of. A missed free throw here or a made 3-pointer there could have turned the tide for WVU and sent the team into its second Elite Eight in the last four seasons.

But who would have thought that would be the case as the ‘‘Huggins Era’’ started with a team which included only two seniors from a squad which failed to make the 65-team NCAA event last season. Instead, that team went on to win the NIT title.

In preseason, WVU was picked 10th in the 16-team Big East Conference, the nation’s most competitive league which qualified more teams (eight) for the NCAA event than any other conference. Three of those teams advanced to the Sweet 16.

When the preseason prediction was made public, it prompted one of the television talking heads to proclaim ‘‘no Bob Huggins team will ever finish 10th in any conference.’’ WVU finished fifth.

But, playing in the NCAA event is old hat to Huggins, who started his high school playing career in the Ohio Valley—at Conotton Valley in Harrison County.

This was the 16th team Huggins has guided into the ‘‘Big Dance.’’ If that doesn’t impress you, consider this: only 20 previous WVU teams competed in the NCAAs.

Huggins, in fact, is the fifth winningest active Division-I coach in the land with 616 career victories. And three of the five coaches on that list are in the Big East—JIM BOEHEIM of Syracuse and JIM CALHOUN of Connecticut, in addition to Huggins.

The winningest (26) first-year coach in Mountaineers history has continued the solid program started by his predecessor, JOHN BEILEIN.

In fact, any creditable observer of the college basketball scene has to include WVU in any conversation of the current elite teams in the land.

After all, the Mountaineers are the ONLY college program to win at least two postseason tournament games each of the last five seasons. That stretch includes an NCAA Elite Eight, two other Sweet Sixteens and an NIT championship.

And the best may be yet to come.

Huggins started only one senior, point guard DARRIS NICHOLS, in the NCAA Tournament and next season’s experienced team will be bolstered by the first full recruiting class for the WVU coach.

That class includes three touted prospects, headed by 6-foot-7 power forward KEVIN JONES from Mount Vernon, N.Y., which has produced several college players including ex-Mountaineer LOWES MOORE. Jones recently was selected as New York’s Mr. Basketball and will be included on the Parade All-America team to be released next weekend.

The other recruits are 6-2 guard DARRYL (TRUCK) BRYANT, another New York all-stater from St. Raymond’s High in the Bronx, and 6-10 ROSCOE DAVIS from Hargrave Military in Chatham, Va., which produced current Mountaineers star JOE ALEXANDER. Buckle those seatbelts, WVU fans, it could be a fun ride during the ‘‘Huggins Era.’’

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(1) Does WVU have the most successful football-basketball program in the land? We don’t know. We’re just asking. But the Mountaineers have a strong argument: the football team finished No. 6 in the final rankings after winning a BCS Bowl; the men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16; and the women’s basketball team was ranked No. 17 nationally and advanced to the NCAA second round.

(2) The second best men’s basketball program in West Virginia has to be Mountain State University in Beckley. Earlier this week, the Cougars (34-3) defeated previously unbeaten Georgetown (Ky.) in the semifinals of the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City before bowing to defending champion Oklahoma City in the final. In 2004. the Cougars captured the NAIA national championship.

(3) With WVU involved in spring football drills, first-year coach BILL STEWART is the answer to a trivia question: name the only one of seven interim head coaches to win bowl games last season?

(4) When it rains, it pours for the new Michigan football coach, what’s-his-name. The Wolverines had only two returning offensive line starters back from last season but that number is down to one since Ohio native JUSTIN BOREN, whose father also played for the Wolverines, withdrew from school last week.

(5) The winningest college men’s basketball coach, BOB KNIGHT, is a welcome addition to the broadcast analyst profession, which has been, in many cases, more fluff than stuff.

(6) We thought it interesting that Steubenville Big Red and Wheeling Central have agreed to play football this fall. Big Red enters the season on a 50-game regular season victory steak while Central has a 33-game overall skein. If Central would be unbeaten after playing Big Red in the ninth game of the season, the Knights would tie the Ohio Valley all-game winning streak mark of 42 held by Big Red.

(7) Enjoy the weekend.

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