Coaching Him Up

Perhaps more than any other player on the WVU men's basketball team's roster, the improvement Deniz Kilicli has made since becoming a Mountaineer is visible -- as the big man sometimes makes dramatic strides in certain areas on a game-to-game basis.

Take a recent stretch of contests in the Big East Conference, for example. In a 55-54 loss at Louisville on Jan. 26, Kilicli had a rough outing, scoring only two points and playing only 17 minutes (at a time when his team needed quality minutes, since it was dressing only eight scholarship players).

That was largely because Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino had clearly seen some of Kilicli's flaws in scouting West Virginia. When the center received the ball in the post, a second U of L defender immediately collapsed on the sophomore.

That prevented Kilicli from getting one of his signature hook shots up and took advantage of one of the Istanbul native's biggest weaknesses -- his ability to pass the ball cleanly in pressure situations.

But by the time the Mountaineers played host to arch-rival Pitt on Big Monday this week, Kilicli had started to make growth in that area. He made quicker decisions with the ball, finding open teammates when an extra Panther defender came his way (even if the passes themselves still weren't exactly picturesque at times).

And when Kilicli found himself in one-on-one situations, he did what he typically does -- found a way to score with that soft left-hand hook shot, a weapon so few players possess and one that can be devastatingly effective when it consistently falls.

"It's been a team process," emphasized Mountaineer assistant coach Erik Martin, who works extensively with Kilicli. "In the Louisville game, guys would throw the ball in to Deniz and they'd stand. That's the worst thing you can do to a post player, because now, the person who threw it in, his defender can get at the ball.

"The Pitt game, we were telling our guys, ‘After you throw it in, cut to the basket.' That way, your man is either going to come with you so Deniz will have one-on-one, or they'll help and you'll have a layup. So I think it's more of Deniz knowing what to look for, but also his teammates kind of moving instead of throwing it in and watching."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Kilicli had a career-high 19 points and, frankly, kept WVU in contention with the No. 4-ranked Panthers until the final minute of what was ultimately a 71-66 loss.

But while from the outside it might look like the key is that Kilicli is making quicker decisions with the ball, Martin -- who played for the man who is now his boss, Bob Huggins, when Huggs patrolled the sidelines at Cincinnati -- said it's really about the post player being able to slow things down after receiving a pass.

"I'm of the belief that when they throw it in, don't make a quick move in the post," Martin said. "Slow down. Put the ball away, look what happens, see if there's a cutter. If there's not, then go. But I think at the beginning of the year, he'd get it and just go. He didn't know maybe [teammate] Joe [Mazzulla's] man knew he was going to bounce it, so he'd go in there and dig and steal the ball.

"Now, [Kilicli] is just slowing down. His teammates know where to cut. He knows where to look for each teammate, and it's kind of just a growing process."

Indeed, that's a process that has been ongoing since the big man came to the United States to progress in his basketball career. Kilicli played for coach Rob Fulford at the now-defunct Mountain State Academy program in Beckley and began taking the steps to adapt the skills he developed back home in Turkey to the American style of play.

That's still something Martin said must continue for Kilicli to become the kind of player he is capable of being -- an "unstoppable" post presence, to use the word Martin himself used to describe what the potential is for Kilicli in the future.

For that to happen, though, Martin said Kilicli will have to learn to score as effectively with his right hand as he has with his left and, like so many other young post players, he will have to work on making his footwork consistently good.

"If you can only go left, there are people that do scouts like us and they're going to take your left shoulder away," Martin said. "So it's best that we work on the right, and I think after the Pitt game, we've made a more concerted effort -- ‘Okay, work on your right hand. It's going to be a while before it's as good as your left, but it needs to be as good as your left.

"When Deniz is in a stance, I don't think anyone in college basketball can move him. But if you watch Deniz when he's not in a play, he tends to stand up -- and standing up, even you could box Deniz out or bow him up. You'd be surprised. You're probably thinking [you couldn't] because of his size, but you'd be surprised. Great players are good when they're in a stance with their hands out. Just now, he's starting to do that and now Big East players are having a hard time moving him from where he wants to go."

As Kilicli draws near the end of his second season as a college basketball player, Martin said the improvement the big man has shown so far is a tribute to his work-ethic, and that those habits must remain consistent if Kilicli wants to take the next step and become a dominant player.

"I think he's done a great job of listening more, which is really important, and just being coachable," Martin said.

"Maybe the best thing about Deniz is that he's not from America. He hasn't had AAU guys blow up his behind about how good he is. He's a Euro and he's been working hard. That's not to say that our American guys don't work hard. But you know what I mean. He doesn't have that over-inflated ego that an AAU coach has put inside him. He just works hard. He's getting better and better, and I really do think the sky is the limit."

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