By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
They’re getting it, these freshmen of Bob Huggins.
Honest to goodness — and what was it Mae West said? “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” — kids like point guard Gary Browne and wing Aaron Brown are beginning to figure out the college game and it’s making a difference for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
From the start, this was going to be an interesting year for Huggins.
Like aren’t they all?
But this year was going to bring him back to his roots, make a teacher as well as a coach out of him, seven freshmen and Kevin Noreen, who might as well be, playing big-time basketball.
True, they are big-time freshmen, but when you play in the Big East, nearly everyone once was a big-time freshman but has put some game experience and savvy under his belt. What is new to these kids every day are lessons their competitors learned long ago.
It’s like in baseball, which may be the best analogy, for it really is hard to be a rookie. Ask Sandy Koufax. Oh, he was a 20-game winner, it just took him the first four years of his career to win those 20 games.
Once he learned, he won 25, 26 and 27 in three of his final four years in the game, 19 in the other.
Or ask Mike Schmidt. First full year, .196 batting average, 72 hits, 136 strikeouts ... and he wound up in the Hall of Fame.
You see, your physical skills only get you so far. You have to learn about yourself, about your opponent, about your coach.
Aaron Brown, for example, feels it coming. The first game, against Oral Roberts, he scored 10 points, probably on nervous energy. It took him three games to score his 10 points and until he scored seven at Kansas State and seven at home against Miami, he had looked lost.
No more, says Huggins.
“AB has made some shots. He has made some big shots. He made some shots under pressure for us, and I think he continues to get better defensively. He made a couple of post feeds, which he has not made before,” Huggins said.
Brown is starting to think, to see what teams are going to him so that he can counter it.
“Teams are trying to run me off the 3-point line,” the Brown without the “e” said.
“I give them an up fake, take two big dribbles in and if the big man is open I dish it off, if not, it’s open for me to shoot,” he explained.
Learning, thinking, gaining experience.
Next, of course, the defense will catch on. It will adjust, telling its players not to fall for the ball fake. It’s up to Brown then to realize it and maybe go right up from 3 for a while, try to draw them to him so he can drive around them.
Then there’s his roommate, the Browne with the “e,” a point guard from Puerto Rico, who Huggins is in the process of trying to mold into a kid with more talent but the same mentality that Joe Mazzulla had.
“Gary has got to play hard. I told Gary he has to go like Joe Mazzulla. When Joe didn’t play hard, he wasn’t very good. He finally learned he had to play hard all the time and then he was a pretty good player,” Huggins said.
“We are trying to get Gary to realize the very same thing. Honestly, he made some shots in the first half that I’m sure surprised him because they surprised me.”
How many shots like that can you remember Joe Mazzulla making as he sacrificed his body in the lane or stood at the free throw line and shot free throws right-handed because he couldn’t get his natural left hand above his shoulder?
The two are roommates so they have a lot of time to talk about basketball, about what they are learning, what’s tough to learn. They know each other and Gary Browne knows that Aaron Brown is coming along.
“He’s playing really, really good. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s making shots, big shots. And he’s playing hard on defense,” Browne said.
The point guard said he and the small forward go back to the room and talk about the games. One might imagine they also talk about starting. Both, though, are saying all the right things.
“Oh yeah,” Browne said about possibly starting, should that come along. “I’m ready for everything, but I’ll do whatever Coach asks me to do. If he wants to put me in for five seconds, I’ll do it. We are a team, a family. Nobody thinks, ‘Oh, I should start.’ We do whatever we need to do to help the team.”
It appears they already have learned the most important lesson, and one that is more and more lost in this day and age — team, not individual, comes first.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.