By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
When West Virginia University walks into Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, it is being billed as a basketball game between the Mountaineers and Cyclones, but it is far, far more than that.
Indeed, this a clash of basketball philosophies and approaches, a showdown of temperaments, if you prefer.
WVU’s Bob Huggins has always played the game with an edge on, turning it into a battle of mental and physical wills. He demands effort and defense and rebounding, but he goes against a counterpart in Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg with a totally different outlook upon the way the game should be played.
Like Huggins, Hoiberg is coaching at his alma mater where he was a star player, averaging 20 points a game his senior season. Unlike Huggins, his game carried over into the NBA for a decade as a shooting guard for the Indiana Pacers, the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves, helping shape a far different philosophy than Huggins built as a college coach all those years.
The result is that even this year, as many teams across the nation struggle to score, Hoiberg’s teams go at a breakneck pace and shoot 3s as if they were going out of style.
The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in scoring by averaging 82.5 points a game, five more than second-place Kansas, and 14.5 more points a game than WVU has been able to scratch out. They have made more than twice as many 3s as WVU, 143-to-71, and love to get out and run.
Yet they hit the boards, leading the league in rebounding with 42.6 per game, led by league-leading rebounder Melvin Ejim, who averages 9.3 a game even though he stands just 6-6.
It all comes out of the philosophy Hoiberg has developed during his career.
“We want to get up and down the floor before the defense gets set,” he explained during Monday’s Big 12 basketball coaches’ conference call.
Hoiberg’s style is an outgrowth of some time spent with two pretty fair basketball minds during his NBA career.
“The big thing is to get guys to go out and play with confidence,” he said. “I played with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. It’s unbelievable how they could get us pumped up and go out and play with confidence you need.”
That’s a pair of Boston Celtics Hall of Famers, Bird who wound up in Indiana with the Pacers and McHale with the Minnesota Timberwolves, sharing their knowledge with players eager to learn from them.
That helped with all the 3s, but it is more than just the confidence. As much as they have been shooting the ball, they have been taking good shots, and as much as they have been running, they haven’t been throwing it away.
The good shots, he said, have come from working on spacing and making the extra pass, while the ability to play under control is a result of the play of point guard Korie Lucious, a transfer from Michigan State who has improved after sitting out last year as the season went on.
The result is that against Texas, as they bounced back from a demoralizing loss to Kansas in a game that was tied at the buzzer on a banked in 3 by the Jayhawks, they had only five turnovers despite playing at an uptempo pace.
“The reason we lost some of our earlier games was our inability to take care of the ball,” Hoiberg said. “I’m pleased with the way Korie has gone. He’s making simple plays. Earlier he was trying to get the ball into tight spaces and make home run passes.
“I think he was pressing then, excited to get out and play after a year off. He wasn’t horrible, just taking too many risky passes. We stuck with him and it has paid off now.”
West Virginia’s grit and determination will test them as the Mountaineers battle to land an important conference road victory that will keep their noses above.500 for the season, and Hoiberg knows it.
Huggins has said that his point guard, Juwan Staten, will be on the trip after not playing the last three halves, and if Huggins is taking him you would expect he’ll play him. Huggins also seemed determined to start Kevin Noreen and Dominique Rutledge while bringing Aaric Murray, his leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, off the bench.
After traveling to Iowa, WVU comes home for a day and then must go back out on the road to play a non-conference game at Purdue.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @bhertzel.