- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- There isn’t a whole lot of pretense to Bob Huggins.
He is honest, sometimes cuttingly so. He can be gruff. He can be rough.
He is loyal and fiercely protective of those he cares for and equally dismissive of the people for whom he has no use.
He is a man made rich by the spoils of basketball, but a man who at his core remains the kid who grew up in Midvale, Ohio: “500 people, two stoplights, nine bars,’’ as he describes it.
Huggins doesn’t suffer fools or spend a whole lot of time wishing for what could have been or lamenting what wasn’t.
This is a guy who culled his life’s motto from a ride in a pickup truck.
“I got in the truck with this guy one time and I looked and he didn’t have a rear-view mirror,’’ Huggins said. “I said, ‘You don’t have a rear-view mirror.’ He said, ‘I don’t back up. We’re only going forward, son.’ And that’s kind of how I’ve lived myself.’’
But even Huggins admits that he would take a moment and rewind if his Mountaineers, who topped Notre Dame, 53-51, are able to capture the Big East tournament title.
It’s been 26 years since West Virginia brought home a conference title of any kind (that was during the Mountaineers run in the Atlantic 10), and for Huggins, who was born in Morgantown and graduated from the university, bringing the hardware home as the native son would hold a special meaning.
“I’ve been telling these guys all year that it’s neat to come back and see the banners that you were responsible for hanging; it gives you a reason to want to come back,’’ Huggins said. “I know when I was at Cincinnati it meant a lot to the guys to come back and see them there on that far wall. I’ve been telling them about that since the beginning of the season.’’
The Mountaineers, who joined the Big East in 1995, will be playing for the tournament championship for the second time in school history. They lost to Syracuse in 2005.
To win they’ll only have to stop Georgetown, the team with a record seven Big East tournament championships.
“They’re really good. Extremely well coached,’’ Huggins said of Georgetown. “You know, it’s the Big East. You look around the league and who do you play that doesn’t have great players? Everybody has great players.’’
WVU does as well. His name is Da’Sean Butler. Almost certainly either he or Georgetown’s Greg Monroe will take home the tournament’s most outstanding trophy tomorrow night. Both have been dominant -- and more, the absolute lifeblood of their teams.
Against Cincinnati, Butler hit the banked-in, buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer. Against Notre Dame his play may have been less dramatic but no less heroic. In a game in which offense was at an absolute premium, Butler scored 24 points, nabbed seven rebounds and cashed in three assists. He was the lone player the Irish couldn’t contain.
And even he almost wasn’t enough.
West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone flustered the Irish into poor shooting -- Notre Dame shot only 34 percent for the game, not good enough when a team plays the way the Irish have decided to play.
But the Mountaineers didn’t do enough to put the Irish away for good. Down 10 with five minutes to play, Notre Dame rallied and had a chance to win the game on a play that eerily mirrored Butler’s final shot against Cincinnati.
Except for one critical difference. Tory Jackson’s 3 came up short and the Mountaineers, in need only of a 2, couldn’t corral the rebound before the clock expired.
“Either you win or lose on that one,’’ Butler said of Jackson’s shot. “I just prayed he didn’t win.’’
He didn’t and now the Mountaineers just might win it all.
And maybe their forward-thinking coach will even allow for a little reflection.