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Huggins sees troops getting tougher

MORGANTOWN — If West Virginia's basketball team accomplished nothing else with Sunday's 2013-ending romp over William & Mary at the Civic Center, at the very least it showed some grit.

And Bob Huggins just loves grit.

No, an 82-45 win over the Tribe doesn't approach a signature win. The Mountaineers still don't have one of those. They are still beating the teams they are supposed to beat and falling short against everyone else. That hasn't changed.

But there's nothing Huggins likes to see more than his teams exhibiting some toughness. Whether it's the mental toughness required to play defense and rebound every time down the floor or the physical toughness to play through some pain, Huggins figures if his players show that then, well, eventually everything else will fall into place.

And his players did both on Sunday. That they showed that mental toughness is really no big deal. A lot of that is determined by the level of competition. Staying focused and not getting discouraged or taking plays off isn't that hard against William & Mary. The real tests in that realm will come in the next 18 games against Big 12 opposition — teams capable of making sustained runs and throwing a wrench into what WVU wants to do.

The physical toughness, though, was encouraging to Huggins. And that it came from his three freshmen was even more promising.

"It goes back to the difference between being hurt and injured,'' Huggins said. "If you're injured, you can't play. If you're hurt, play.

"I'm hurt every morning. I pull myself out of bed every morning. It hurts. You've got to deal with it and play through it.''

And Huggins' three freshmen did.

n Devin Williams, of late a double-double machine, ached so much he could barely move. He was pulled from the starting lineup after riding a bus from Cincinnati to Morgantown the day after Christmas returning from the holiday break. But he still managed to play 13 minutes and grab six rebounds, score four points and get an assist.

n Brandon Watkins, West Virginia's other low-post freshman, was fine from the neck down so he started in Williams' place. But that didn't change the fact that his lips were still swollen badly and his mouth a wreck after colliding with Richard Romeo in practice and pretty much knocking two teeth out. That he went over to WVU's dental school and got fixed up well enough to return to practice — that day — only improved Huggins' impression of him. He played 11 minutes, had four rebounds, two points, two blocks and an assist.

n And then there was Nathan Adrian. The freshman forward from Morgantown was fine to start the game — if you consider having overcome about four sprained ankles so far this season as fine — but then got a nose and face full of blood in a collision under the basket in the first half (Yes, a foul was whistled. On Adrian). All he did was get patched up, put his nose back in place and scored 16 points, making four of his five 3-point tries.

Then throw in Terry Henderson, who has battled shin issues all season but came through with a season-high 19 points, and what you had was a team limping through 40 minutes and making it work. Again, yes, the opposition was William & Mary. But it's not as if the Tribe was totally inept. This was still a team that played well enough to lead Wichita State in the second half and beat Rutgers this season, both on the road. It could have been dangerous. It ended up a comically-lopsided rout.

The thing about all those injuries is that they will likely only get worse as the year goes on. It may not be Williams' back or Watkins' mouth or Adrian's nose or even Henderson's shin. But 18 Big 12 games over the next nine weeks are going to take their toll. This is a team with just nine eligible scholarship players heading into play in a conference that, at least according to the Rating Percentage Index, is the best in the country right now.

A whole bunch of toughness won't guarantee success for the Mountaineers. But lack of toughness would certainly assure a torturous two months. So if nothing else, Huggins has to be encouraged by what he just saw.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1


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