In 20-plus seasons as a college basketball head coach, Bob Huggins has seen more than his fair share of talented players. After all, we're talking about a guy who has won more than 600 games, coached Cincinnati to the Final Four and will likely be enshrined one day in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Huggins has put several players on All-American teams and even more in the NBA. He himself has had opportunities to jump to the league, being courted first by the Miami Heat in the mid-1990's and later by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000.
In all that time, though, few players he has coached can match the "it" factor of WVU freshman Devin Ebanks.
"He really understands," Huggins said of his starting forward, who has played no less than four positions for the Mountaineers this season. "He's not a guy that you have to tell him over and over again. The last two guys that I had like that were Jamaal Davis and Kenyon (Martin). We can literally play Devin at point guard and he knows where everybody is supposed to be. That's really unusual, particularly for a freshman. He knows not only what he is supposed to do, but what everybody else is supposed to do. Knowing that enables him to get into positions."
It is certainly no coincidence that as Ebanks has progressed, so too has West Virginia. The Mountaineers enter Friday's first-round NCAA Tournament game against Dayton playing what is arguably their best basketball of the season. In last week's Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden, only Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn had a better showing than Ebanks. Flynn took home the Dave Gavitt Trophy as the event's Most Valuable Player. Ebanks made the all-tournament team after pulling down 18 rebounds in the win over Notre Dame Wednesday night, and then setting back-to-back career highs with 20 and 22 points against Pitt and Syracuse, respectfully.
The most noticeable improvement in Ebanks's play this season has been his increased scoring production. Early in the year, the Long Island City, N.Y., native was active across the board with rebounds, steals and the occasional blocked shot, but had yet to consistently put up the scoring numbers that, quite frankly, WVU needed from him. Down the stretch, however, Ebanks has put it all together, scoring more points while not sacrificing any of the activity numbers that were so apparent from the beginning of the year.
"It's his mindset," Huggins explained. "He plays with a lot of poise. He's got a great aptitude for basketball. He understands how to play; he understands what you are telling him. He is very coachable.
"It's not like we throw the ball to him and score," continued the head coach. "He scores outside the context of what we're doing because he understands how to play. When you talk to him in the huddle about doing this or doing that, he really understands and he really tries to take advantage of it."
Perhaps the best news of all is that, despite his obvious success as a freshman, Ebanks is just getting started. The freshman has already stated multiple times that he will be returning to Morgantown for his sophomore season.
"He can be a lot better," said Huggins. Such is surely a scary thought for the rest of the Big East and West Virginia's other future opponents. "Once he gets stronger to where he doesn't get knocked off of the ball, you think about what a hard match-up he is going to be. He's going to shoot it better. I think he'll increase his range and be more consistent shooting threes next year so he can step out. If he gains 25 pounds like he should, we can stick him in the post and play him anywhere."
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So, what is the key to victory on Friday against Atlantic 10 at-large Dayton? For starters, consistent offensive play from the team's two most experienced players.
"I feel really good when Da'Sean (Butler) and Alex (Ruoff) make shots," said Huggins. "If we score 70 points, we win. We haven't lost yet when we get to 70. We're good enough defensively to hold people under 70."
"When we haven't scored 70, we've lost," he continued. "If those two guys make shots, we're bound to score 70. Devin has been more consistent and Truck has been playing better. If (Ruoff and Butler) make shots, we're good."
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Even with the win-or-go home environment that presents itself once the tournament begins, don't expect the Mountaineers to be uptight.
"They're pretty loose," Huggins said of his players. "They have fun. I don't think with them that being tight is going to be a problem. I think we have to make sure they understand how good Dayton is. I think that they do understand that, now, the next time we lose they're going to be back in the weight room and working like crazy. I think they understand that."