MORGANTOWN — No one will argue that today’s basketball players throughout America are not better athletes than they once were, least of all West Virginia’s coach Bob Huggins, who himself once was a pretty good player.
They are bigger, stronger, faster than previous generations.
But are they better players?
That was the subject Huggins was musing over the other day as he thought about his team and the things he has seen of it so far, the good such as the upset victory over No. 6 Virginia, and the bad such as the upset defeat to Temple.
Now with a 3-5 Western Carolina team coming into the Charleston Civic Center for a 7 p.m. game Wednesday, to be followed by VMI and the University of Missouri-Kansas City at the Coliseum, one would expect Huggins to get the three victories that will get him to 800 for his career.
You may wonder why Huggins has had his success. Certainly, at Akron, Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia, you wouldn’t figure that he was skimming his players off of the top of the recruiting lists, so there had to be something more than just putting the best players on the floor.
You ask Huggins about it and the point he emphasizes is that while the players are talented, they are also lacking in a most important area.
“I don’t think they know how to play,” Huggins said.
It isn’t their fault, he says, but it is the reality of the times.
“I think they play all of the time but they don’t,” Huggins said. “It’s kind of long and complicated and I’m not trying to kill AAU because I think it has some good. But I think when you used to have to go to the playground to play, you had to win, or you sat for four or five games.”
That was long the playground rule. Winner keeps the court. So, if you had three or four or five teams, two would play and the winner would take on the next, whether it was five-man teams, two-on-two, or one-on-one.
So, what you did, Huggins reasons, is you played to win because it was more important to stay on the court than it was to score six of your teams’ nine baskets if the other team scored 10 and you sat out.
“The older guys expected the younger guys to pass them the ball and screen, and guard their man, and do all of those things and they were going to shoot the ball,” Huggins said, inferring that the older guys were usually the better scorers.
“You learn how to win.”
Times have changed, though. Go by a playground these days when the weather allows and it’s probably empty.
Instead, kids are playing on organized teams, the best ones on organized AAU teams, most of the time with recruiting in mind. You play for yourself, which makes it an entirely different world.
“I think when you go out there and play three games a day and you know you get two Whoppers with cheese, and fries, and a shake twice, and a pizza afterwards whether you win or lose (it takes away from the ultimate goal of the game, which is to win.)
“I mean,” Huggins continued, “I didn’t have anybody buying me pizza if we didn’t win. I just think it’s a product of the older guys used to help the younger guys. Now they’re never around.
“You drive by courts now, you don’t see anyone out there playing. It’s just a different culture, I think. And in fairness, the athletes now are bigger, stronger, faster. They’re better. It’s just their idea of how to play sometimes baffles me.”
What Huggins does is teach them how to play, starting with the one part of the game that is mostly ignored — defense.
And as they learn that and how to be unselfish, he teaches them the importance and value of winning.
In the end, that was what made the last victory over Virginia so impressive.
The Cavaliers are known for their team play, their defense, unselfishness and dedication to winning. Yes, the slow style they play is 180 degrees away from the hectic pace Huggins tries to dictate in the game, but the goals and values are the same.
Find a way to win the game … and if there isn’t a Whopper waiting at the end of day, it doesn’t really matter.