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Huggins paying little mind to mailed-in free-throw advice for WVU basketball

By MIKE CASAZZA

Charleston Gazette-Mail

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The topic of free-throw shooting has been on Bob Huggins’ mind for quite some time. Now it’s in his mailbox.

The West Virginia coach who has suffered two losses this season that were greatly shaped by struggles at the foul line watched his players go 3-for-8 in the final minutes Saturday as Texas A&M turned a 20-point deficit into a two-point game. The Mountaineers survived when sophomore Esa Ahmad went 2-for-2 with 4 seconds to go after going 4-for-10 before that.

It was an expected outcome after No. 18 WVU (17-4) took a 51-31 lead in the opening seconds of the second half, but it was unnecessary drama at the end. That accompanies the unwelcome advice that’s found Huggins, who was asked after the 81-77 win if his team has the proper practice habits.

“I hear all of that stuff,” he said. “I said on the radio out there that I’ve gotten all these letters from all these guys that have all the solutions. Not one of those guys is above me in the career free-throw percentage deal. I looked. I looked in the paper [Saturday]. They had the career free-throw shooters, and the 13 guys above me, none of those guys sent a letter.”

In addition to his 808 career wins, Huggins is indeed in 14th place for career free-throw percentage at WVU. His 10th season in charge of the Mountaineers has featured ups and downs at the foul line, though. While WVU had three players go 1-for-2 and another go 0-for-2 in the final 92 seconds, the Aggies scored on seven straight possessions, and one player had 11 points.

Earlier this month, WVU was 6-for-12 in overtime of a loss at Texas Tech and 4-for-9 in overtime of a loss against Oklahoma.

“I used to go to carnivals and win stuffed animals. There’s a lot of pressure in that now,” Huggins said. “Those people have never stood out there in front of 14,000 people when you had to make a free throw. Those people have never stood out there in front of 14,000 people after you just ran like crazy for an hour and 45 minutes. I mean, anybody can stand there and make a free throw when there’s nobody in the gym and you haven’t run and all that.

“I get this thing: Make them shoot free throws after they’ve exerted themselves. So what am I supposed to do? Run a sprint and make a free throw? How would you ever have time to do anything?”

It seems Huggins uses his practice time wisely. Saturday’s win against an SEC team with more projected NBA players than he has at his disposal was the seventh against a team in the RPI’s top 100 and pulled WVU up to No. 28 in Sunday’s RPI, which is 15 spots higher than where the Mountaineers were a week earlier.

WVU’s scoring, shooting and overall offense are better this season. Texas A&M played a zone for much of the game, and the Mountaineers shot 58 percent in the first half and made 7 of 11 3-point attempts. That’s becoming more common. Then-No. 1 Baylor played a zone and then-No. 2 Kansas was fored to switch to a zone, and the Mountaineers beat both teams.

More importantly, the press returned against the unsuspecting Aggies and forced 23 turnovers, and WVU still leads the nation in steals, forced turnovers and turnover-margin.

“This is an incredibly complex game” Huggins said. “If you don’t have a press-breaker, you could lose, because you don’t have a press-breaker. If you can’t press, you could lose, because you’d have no way to get back in the game. You need a man offense, and you need a man offense against a pack-line, you need man-offense against pressure, you need man offense against a lot of things. Zone offense, the same way. Free-throw line situations. Out-of-bounds situations.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that could go wrong. But see, those guys have never sat where I sit who keep sending me letters and probably never have been where those guys are now out on the floor.”

The same team that’s that’s No. 38 nationally in field-goal percentage is No. 283 out of 351 Division I teams in free-throw percentage, and the 65.7 percent is well behind Notre Dame’s NCAA-best 80.5 percent.

“You want to shoot free throws good?” Huggins said. “Recruit better shooters. That’s the best way.”

Teaching players good habits isn’t so easy. Huggins recalled a renowned high school basketball coach in Indiana, Virginia Sweet, who was inducted into his state’s hall of fame in 1987. His 1964 team set a national high school record by making 79.2 percent of its free throws. One player once made 409 straight foul shots without leaving the line.

Sweet popularized and shared a method for teaching free-throw shooting. Huggins’ father Charlie, who entered Ohio’s hall of fame last year for his high school coaching career, approved and used it.

“None of that entailed, like, taking the ball behind your back like you see guys doing,” Huggins said. “None of that entailed, you know, some guys dribble, some guys don’t dribble. This was, ‘You do the same thing every single time,’ and he’s right. Try to get those guys to do the same thing every single time. You would spend the whole practice fighting with them about doing the same thing every single time.

“We’re in an age where young people in general don’t pay as much attention as they used to. We’re in an age now where young people have not nearly the respect that we had for the police. You remember when you had respect for the principal, your teacher, your coach? You know, those were people you looked up to. Those were people you respected. Scared to death of the police. Now they’re out there throwing bottles at them. It’s a different time.”

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