Hoo boy, here comes Bob Huggins and everyone in this room and watching or listening outside these walls knows entertainment is on the way. He is the West Virginia basketball coach, and he is known for three things perhaps above all others:
He is a terrific coach, dresses like a personal trainer at Gold’s, and is the proud owner of one of the country’s great dry senses of humor.
Also relevant in this moment: His team just lost 77-69 here to Kansas while being outshot — hand on the Bible, this isn’t a typo — 35-2 on free throws on Saturday.
Also relevant: Huggins was ejected.
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“They shot 29 free throws,” he said. “We shot two.”
For math’s sake, it’s worth noting that KU’s last six free throws came after the ejection, but the point remains. But that’s not the important part. This is:
When the coach of the most notoriously fouling program in the league is openly complaining about the officiating at the most notoriously officiated building in the league, this is what we call a flashpoint.
There are 32 coaches in the Big 12 who weren’t involved in this game, and if there are two things they all agree on, it is that KU gets too many calls (especially at home) and West Virginia’s strategy often seems to be to foul so often the officials get tired of blowing the whistle.
So for them, this must be like watching two villains argue, like being asked to choose between a traffic jam and room-temperature coffee.
The Big 12 race just swung on the hinges of this Saturday, KU’s win and Texas Tech’s loss (at Baylor) conspiring for a first-place tie a week ahead of their rematch in Lubbock. This was a pivotal game, the officials became the story, and Huggins was only getting started when he was asked if the calls were lopsided because of the noise in Allen Fieldhouse.
“If it is, we need to find other guys to come in here, don’t we?” Huggins said. “If they’re intimidated by the building they shouldn’t come in here. But I don’t think so. (We’re) talking about a guy who’s done a bunch of Final Fours.”
He was presumably talking about John Higgins, one of the officials, but Huggins was long on takes and short on details. The closest he got was to say that officials weren’t sticking with points of emphasis. He wouldn’t say which ones, but suggested a reporter should rewatch the officials’ points of emphasis and compare it to the game tape.
OK, that reporter was me.
“I’m not trying to be a smartass,” Huggins said. “But I’m pissed.”
I tried to be as clear as possible that I was enjoying the rant — “be a smartass,” I encouraged — but that’s about as far as it went.
Huggins’ words brought to mind Bruce Weber's Ask Fran press conference, and same as that day at least two things are true here: Huggins loses influence when he declines to talk specifics, and complaining about officials is the ballad of the loser.
The Big 12’s points of emphasis this year were mostly indistinguishable from other seasons: rough post play, illegal screens, and so-called freedom of movement, including the jargony term “vertical cylinder.”
Let’s be clear about something: at least a few fouls that put KU at the line seemed soft, and a few were missed against KU that should’ve been called. But — as always — there are examples on the other side, too, perhaps most notably Marcus Garrett getting hit in the head on a layup without a call.
But, now, about those points of emphasis.
Rough post play: Sagaba Konate, West Virginia’s 260-pound power forward, was the most physical player on the floor and whistled for just three fouls.
Illegal screens: KU’s Udoka Azubuike was called for one.
Freedom of movement: Nobody violates this more than West Virginia.
Vertical cylinder: Svi Mykhailiuk was called for a foul on a play where he got hit in the face while guarding a West Virginia player too closely, and it was absolutely the right call.
Huggins said his frustration had been building this season, that it was about more than just tonight. This is a crude and imperfect way to do it, but if you look at fouls called in West Virginia’s games this year you can see a pattern.
On Saturday, West Virginia was called for 26 fouls, and KU 14. Four of those fouls came in the last 24 seconds, with the Mountaineers chasing, and include the two technicals on Huggins.
In conference play, West Virginia has been whistled for an average of 21 fouls, and its opponents 18.
Coaches and officials around the Big 12 consistently say West Virginia is the hardest team to officiate, because of all the aggression and pressure. That’s doubly true when the Mountaineers go on the road, so it’s worth noting that in road games the foul disparity grows to 23-17.
Is that really all that different than the 22-14 spread before the ugly ending on Saturday?
And if so, is it out of line considering that only six of West Virginia’s 61 field-goal attempts were at the rim?
Huggins and Kansas coach Bill Self each said they couldn’t remember being involved in a game with such a disparity of free throws, and you don’t get there without officials missing some calls.
But watching the game, it was obvious that KU’s plan was to drive to the rim while West Virginia spent far too much time running clock and shooting contested jumpers. At some point, West Virginia gets called for more fouls because West Virginia commits more fouls.
Look, Huggins’ frustration is understandable. But there are at least four problems here.
First, he’s less convincing when he declines to be specific.
Second, it’s always a cop-out to blame officials.
Third, he’s been around far too long to be offended when home teams get calls.
Fourth, him complaining officials aren’t calling it fair for him is a little like a German Shepherd complaining that a Husky sheds too much.
Even if he’s technically correct, he’s the wrong messenger.
KU won a game it could have and perhaps should have lost. That’s been true at least four times before in this conference season, and may be true a time or two again.
Huggins can complain about officiating, but even the league coaches exasperated about calls at Allen Fieldhouse know his teams foul a lot, and they’re probably wondering why he spent the last 9 minutes trying to milk a 10-point lead by having his point guard who struggles to create his own shot attempt to create his own shot.
But, I really did mean what I said. He’s a terrific coach, and I hope he continues to be a smartass.