I don't have enough Bob Huggins stories. I remember Nick Van Exel, Corie Blount, Erik Martin, and Danny Fortson. I definitely remember Kenyon Martin. But I do have a few Bob Huggins stories, starting with one that was shared by The Athletic. The article retells the story of Bob Huggins meeting with a junior college coach many years ago. Huggins went to watch and recruit a player named Tarik Phillips.
"How well does he handle the ball?" Huggins asked the coach.
"He gets it where it needs to go, but I wouldn't say he's a good ball handler," the coach replied.
"How well does he shoot it?"
"He makes some, but he's not a good shooter."
"How's he pass it?"
"Oh, that's the worst thing he does."
Huggins retells the story and remembers wondering why he was there to recruit Tarik Phillips. But then Tarik's junior college coach said, "I will tell you this. We're going to play today, and there will be students in here yelling, townies going crazy, all kinds of noise, and he will win every single play." Huggins, said, "We'll take him."
That story defines a Bob Huggins player. Someone with the mindset and toughness to win every single play. It's not about a recruiting rating; it's not necessarily about on-the-court skills. The article said that a Bob Huggins team would play hard because they'd be asked to work hard. And by asked that meant demanded. Tarik Phillips went on to be named Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year for Bob Huggins and West Virginia.
Bob Huggins grew up in a coal-mining town in Ohio. Toughness wasn't just expected; it was required. He played for his father, who built his programs based on solid fundamentals. Huggins says his father was far more strict than he is. Playing for Bob Huggins is certainly not for everyone. Many of his coaches and players will admit, "You have to be a different breed to play here." With Huggins' long tenure in Division I basketball, he often fields calls to go look at recruits- high-profile, five-star recruits. The staff will follow-up and often come away with the conclusion that the recruit can't play for Huggins. He's not for everybody.
The 1999-2000 college basketball season might be my favorite college basketball season. I was a graduate student at Iowa State University, coaching 8th grade girls basketball in a local school district, and sneaking into Iowa State men's basketball practices. That year Cyclones Head Coach Larry Eustachy won national coach of the year and Jamal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer led the team. They were tough. They played great half court defense and dominated the boards. They beat Kansas. They beat Oklahoma State. They beat Chris Mihm and Texas. They won the Big 12 Tournament and they advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual National Champion Michigan State. If my memory serves me correct, Michigan State was only out-rebounded once all that season- until they played Iowa State. With a three guard line-up, a 6'3" Stevie Johnson at forward, and Marcus Fizer, the Cyclones dominated the Spartans on the boards. I loved that team. That year in college basketball also saw Dick Bennett's Wisconsin Badgers beat one future NBA player after another on their way to the Final Four.
I love tough, physical teams. I appreciate great half court defense. Obviously, that's one reason I have always followed Bob Huggins. I dreamed of coaching basketball, and I owned an entire VHS library of game tapes. Any time a Bob Huggins team played a televised game, I recorded it. Bob Huggins ranks fourth among all active Division I coaches in wins. Big East, Big 12, Conference USA- it doesn't matter what conference, Huggins always produced fundamentally sound teams that played hard and won.
I don't have enough Huggins stories, but my favorite story comes from the Kenyon Martin 1999-2000 season. People remember Michigan State winning the 2000 National Championship. But they forget that the 1999-200 season was dominated by Bob Huggins and the Cincinnati Bearcats. They finished with a final record of 29-4 and 16-0 in Conference USA. They spent several weeks ranked number one, and Kenyon Martin won every player of the year award at the conclusion of the season. Once Martin went down in their conference tournament with a season-ending injury, the Bearcats were doomed. The tournament committee did not award them a number one seed. They ended up losing in the second round.
After the loss, Bob Huggins told ESPN, "My frustration is for the players. I think I'm going to be able to do this a lot longer and will have more good teams. This was their chance. I think in life you have very few chances to be special." Bob Huggins is as tough as they come, and he cares deeply about his players. For the 1999-2000 squad, that was their chance. In the long run, a season-ending injury could not derail Kenyon Martin. The injury was just another obstacle to overcome. Martin went on to be the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft. He played 15 years in the NBA, including one All-Star Game and two NBA Finals.
Huggins led his teams to two Final Fours through the years. His Cincinnati team advanced to the Final Four before running into the Fab Five. His West Virginia team advanced to the Final Four in 2010. At one point, Huggins owned an 8-2 record against his good friend John Calipari. In 2010, Bob's West Virginia team beat a John Calipari Kentucky team with eight future NBA players, including five first round picks. John Wall, Boogie Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe were just a few of the eight future NBA players on that 2010 Kentucky team. As one West Virginia media outlet said, you look at the box score of that 2010 match-up in the Elite Eight and you look at the names and you wonder, "How did that happen?"
Like a Tarik Phillips, you can't explain it in terms of shooting, passing, or ball handling. A Bob Huggins team will battle you every single play. Huggins dialed up a 1-3-1 zone defense versus the top-seeded Kentucky squad. The Wildcats struggled to score against West Virginia. They started the game 0-20 from 3-point range and finished 4 of 32 from 3-point range. Despite the eight future NBA players, West Virginia was a better team and advanced to the Final Four. People expected a blowout Kentucky win. Instead, they saw a relentless, well-coached West Virginia team that just wore down the Wildcats.
West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla was the best player on the floor that day, with a career-high 17 points. The only reason Mazzulla started was because Truck Bryant had broken his foot in practice earlier in the week. West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler played all 40 minutes, scoring a team-high 18 points, including four 3-pointers. That's toughness. I always wanted my team to play like a Bob Huggins team. How does a Huggins team play? After beating Calipari's 2010 Kentucky Wildcats to advance to the Final Four, Huggins described his team. "We just kind of grind on you. We keep screening you. We keep cutting. And they get tired. Then all of the sudden it opens things up for us." That's Bob Huggins. That's his team.
Nick Van Exel played 13 seasons in the NBA. He was the point guard for Huggins' 1991-1992 Cincinnati team that advanced to the Final Four. After an NBA career in which Van Excel averaged 14.4 points and 6.6 assists, he reflected back on his old college coach. On a podcast with Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, Van Excel said, "He instilled in us that toughness, that grit, that grimey basketball. Like, we up in your face for 40 minutes. We ain't letting up."
It's a Saturday night in Madison Square Garden. West Virginia had just won the Big East Tournament. Players and fans celebrated as John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" played throughout the arena. For Huggins, this one was extra special. It was a tournament championship for West Virginia, his alma mater. Huggins told ESPN's Doris Burke, "These guys are unbelievable. We continue to compete and fight and rebound the ball and do things that we probably shouldn't be able to do, but we do anyway." That's the secret of a Bob Huggins team. Tough, gritty, and up in your face for 40 minutes. They battle you every single play. They keep cutting; they keep screening. For forty minutes, they just grind on you. And they never let up. I can't imagine a higher compliment for describing how a team plays.