By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If Bob Huggins had his way, he’d like to see the basketball go through the hoop over and over, as long as it’s his guys shooting it.
It is, he says, a misconception that he is a defensive-minded coach who would rather watch film of Ozzie Smith play shortstop than Barry Bonds hit home runs or Sam Huff rattle Jim Brown’s teeth with a tackle than see Gale Sayers float fluidly through staggering defensive players.
“I’m like everybody else,” Huggins proclaimed on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before sending his team out for its final home game of the season against Louisville with nothing less at stake than a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and a strong seed in the following NCAA Tournament.
Known for the intensity with which he coaches defense and the importance he puts on it, Huggins’ image is that of a defensive guru, an imagine magnified three-fold this season as he has gotten more out of an offensively-challenged team than anyone could have imagine due to its defense.
“I like to see the ball go through the goal … when it’s us. I just know that the two constants in the game are defending and your ability to rebound. Shooting comes and goes and, to a degree, so does passing.
“But you can be very consistent in rebounding and defense,” Huggins said. “Even a year ago, think back to the Villanova game. We could not have been any more out of that game offensively in the first half. But because we defended we gave ourselves a chance and we started to play a little better and were able to win the game.”
WVU won despite scoring only 16 points in the first half of that game, hitting only six shots.
All of this brings us to John Flowers, as lock-down a defender as there is in the Big East.
“John’s probably as good a defender as we’ve had here,” Huggins said.
We address the senior from Waldorf, Md., today, on Senior Day, because when the Big East gathers in New York for the Big East Tournament next week, the all-conference awards and teams will be given out. It is the general consensus within the Flowers household, the West Virginia locker room and all points within the borders of the state that Flowers has earned the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Huggins is more than willing to climb upon a soap box to make a case for his high-leaping 6-foot, 7-inch forward who goes into the final game of regular season ranked second in shot-blocking with 2.3 per game and 15th in rebounding with 6.4.
But you will not be able to judge Flowers’ value and impact by his statistics. You must judge them on the statistics of those whom he guards.
“He’s the only guy in our league who can go out and guard (Connecticut’s high-scoring guard) Kemba Walker and turn around and guard (Louisville center) Terrance Jennings,” Huggins said, referring to Walker, who is lightning quick at 6-1 and Jennings, who is thunder at 6-10. “There’s nobody else in the league who can do what he does.”
The problem with defense is that it is always hidden behind the headlines.
You might have seen the headline: “Brooks scores 52 for Friars,” coming after he lit up Notre Dame for a Big East record 52 points this year.
What you didn’t see was a headline when Brooks came into West Virginia and scored 13 points.
“That was John,” Huggins said. “That was John whenever Marshon Brooks was in the game.”
It has always been that with Flowers, even in high school when everyone is offensive minded.
“I always cared more about my defense,” Flowers said.
He did average 18 points a game in high school, but where he really shone was with 13.2 rebounds a game and 6.4 blocks. Athletes, like anyone else, tend to enjoy best what they do best, and Flowers always could handle the defense.
John Beilein originally recruited Flowers, and Huggins admits after the coaching change he had to “re-recruit” him, but he never felt he was in danger of losing him.
“He wanted to be here,” Huggins said.
And he showed early just what kind of impact defensive player he would be.
“He made a play here his freshman year against Syracuse that I thought turned the game around. They had a breakaway dunk, and he came and blocked it,” Huggins recalled. “We went down and scored and turned the game around (eventually winning 81-61).”
Huggins claims that it isn’t difficult to get into playing defense.
“I haven’t had very many I can’t sell on defense. They don’t all become as proficient at it, but they know they have to do it to win. Guys want to win. People lose track of that,” Huggins said. “When you can show them on film, look what happened, if we can’t guard better we can’t win, they will all try to win.”
The proof, you might say, is in the pounding opponents take.
“They all understand in there. This is going to be our fourth straight NCAA Tournament. It’s because of what we do at the defensive end and the way we rebound the ball.”
And no one understands more than Flowers.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.