Hugs for 'The Turk'
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's hard sometimes to watch a West Virginia basketball game and see the interaction between Bob Huggins and Deniz Kilicli and imagine how the two ever managed to survive four years together.
Huggins, West Virginia's hulking and fiery head coach, will remove Kilicli from a game and it takes little imagination to decipher the angry words that spew forth.
And Kilicli, the equally hulking and fiery senior forward, will sometimes take it passively and sometimes not. Few players in Huggins' 31-year coaching career seem to have been willing to debate him during a game the way Kilicli sometimes does as he walks off the floor.
Well, all of that is about to end. When West Virginia (13-17, 6-11 Big 12) plays its final regular-season game at 1:30 p.m. today at the Coliseum against Iowa State (20-10, 10-7), Kilicli will play for the last time at the Coliseum.
That he will do so in front of his parents - who are in Morgantown this week from their native Turkey to see him play in college for the first time - is perhaps instructional. It is at least illuminating where the relationship between Huggins and Kilicli is concerned.
"When I was young, I was used to my dad kicking my ass after every game,'' Kilicli said Friday. "I was 15 then. I'd fight him in the car on the way home. He'd drive the car and I'd sit behind him so he couldn't reach me and talk smack to him the whole way home. He'd do the same thing to me.
"But if he didn't do that, I wouldn't be able to play here. Because that's exactly what Huggs does. He's just not driving the car.''
To say that Kilicli's college career at West Virginia has had its peaks and valley would be an understatement.
He began as a raw freshman who was actually listed on the roster then as being five pounds bigger than the 6-foot-9, 260 pounds at which he stands now. To think that he's trimmed down, though, is just not true. Then he looked like a basketball project. Today he's bigger, thicker and stronger than an NFL tight end.
"I didn't have a motor back in the day, either,'' Kilicli said. "I would just quit after an hour of practice. Now I can go three hours and then go another three hours.''
He began his career, though, not going anywhere. The NCAA suspended him for the first 20 games of his freshman year because he played on a team in Turkey before he arrived here that paid some of its players. Kilicli was never one who was paid, but the NCAA still made him sit out.
When he was finally eligible, his first game was at the Coliseum against Pitt. Unless you were anyone from Pitt - including then-Panther assistant coach (and current Marshall coach) Tom Herrion, who was infamously hit with a thrown coin that night - things couldn't have gone much better. The No. 6 Mountaineers won 70-51 over No. 22 Pitt in front of the third-largest crowd in Coliseum history and Kilicli, although he scored just nine points, was the biggest star of the night.
He played only briefly, but the first time he was on the floor he took a pass in the post and made a hook shot. The crowd went wild. The next time down the court, same thing. The third time, he tipped in a missed Devin Ebanks shot.
He was on his way to stardom.
He never really made it, though. That team would go on to play in the Final Four, but Kilicli would score only 43 more points in the remaining 14 games that season.
He went on to average 6.6 points as a sophomore and then 10.7 points as a junior, both on NCAA tournament teams. He was supposed to be the anchor on this year's team, but until lately he was mostly just another disappointment on a disappointing team.
The worst part is that after so much success during his first three seasons, this one has been torturous. Kilicli's mood has seemed to rise and fall as much as his play. After the first five games he was averaging 11.3 points. The fifth of those games was a 21-point performance against Marshall. But then in the next 11 games he had one double-figure scoring night and twice went scoreless. He picked it up again by averaging 12.4 points in a nine-game stretch that included a career-high 25 in a win over Texas Tech. But then he had three straight games of seven points on 7-of-22 shooting before scoring 20 Wednesday night in a loss at Oklahoma.
It's not what he envisioned.
"I said it my sophomore year after the NCAA tournament. You feel like it's going to happen all the time. You get spoiled,'' Kilicli said. "But you know, I think I had a pretty good run. I went to the NCAA tournament three times, to the Final Four once. And this year's still going. You never know what's going to happen.''
One thing Kilicli is certain of is that regardless of the highs and the lows, he hates that his time at West Virginia is about to end.
"It's sad. I don't want to leave this place,'' Kilicli said. "The people are pretty cool. It's hard for me to leave here. It's been my house. It's home to me. But I've got to do what I've got to do.''
Huggins knows how hard it will be for Kilicli to leave WVU. It will be just as hard for him to see him leave.
"Denis has probably been one of my favorite guys,'' Huggins said. "I just like the way Deniz has embraced West Virginia and the culture. He loves the people and the state.''
He loves playing for Huggins, too.
"He means so much to me. He's like a dad, you know?'' Kilicli said. "I love him to death. He did so much for me. Nobody did that for me in my basketball career. None of my coaches worked on me as much as he did. He's been there for me in every high point of my life and every low point. When I needed people the most when I was 17, 18, he was there for me.
"We have a different kind of relationship than just player and coach. It's so hard for me to go somewhere else, but I have to do it.''
Huggins jokes that he's surprised Kilicli still is so fond of him.
"He always tells me that when he didn't understand English he liked me,'' Huggins said. "But then when he understood English he still liked me.''
Just before today's 1:30 p.m. tipoff with Iowa State (the game will be televised by the Big 12 Network, locally on WQCW), Kilicli and fellow seniors Dominique Rutledge and Matt Humphrey will be honored prior to their last game. Kilicli will walk onto the court with his parents, Ahmet and Dilek.
It will be the only time they have ever watched their son at the place he's called home the last four years.
"I just want them to see it because as much as I tell them about it, you've got to experience this kind of stuff,'' Kilicli said. "All these students, the people, how much our fans show the passion for our team ... It's an amazing place here.''
But it won't be easy for him.
"It's going to be really emotional,'' Kilicli said. "I'm an emotional player anyway. When I'm playing, my emotions really affect my game.
"But I think it's going to be good. You can never get too hyped for a game. If you're too hyped, it's easy to come down. If you're low, that's a problem. If you're low, it's so hard to get your spirits up. But it's my last game here. Hopefully it's going to be like my first game, but better.''
After that is next week's Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo., and then, more likely than not, college basketball is over. The Mountaineers, four games under .500 now, aren't likely to play beyond Kansas City unless they get on the kind of hot streak that has been missing all season.
And beyond that, who knows? Kilicli will continue to play basketball, either in the United States or somewhere in Europe. He would love for it to be here.
"But you never know what's going to happen,'' Kilicli said. "I didn't have the best season this year, so I've got to go out there and prove myself, which I don't have a problem with. But if [playing in the U.S. doesn't] happen, I can always go to Europe and play. There are a lot of teams there that would [sign him] just because of how I play and just because I played for Huggs.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.