The message is a simple one, according to forward Wellington Smith.
"You know Huggs," the senior forward said with a smile. "He says, ‘If we do what we do better than they do what they do', or something like that, then we'll always win. Do what we do is just that -- we win with our ugliness in the way we scrap and the way we get the rebounds. We play great defense, and as long as we play great defense and get the 50-50 balls, run plays and get shots, as long as we do what we do, we will be fine and we will win the game."
Most teachers would frown on using the phrase being defined as part of the definition itself, but in this case it serves as an illustrative point. Head coach Bob Huggins and his coaching staff have drilled that mantra into the team for so long that it's almost impossible for them to even talk about it without repeating the phrase word for word.
From Huggins' perspective, of course, that's a good thing. It's a sign that his message is getting across, even though it may have taken all season to do so. The shirts certainly aren't a one-time effort to make a point – it's a continuation of a message that began in the preseason.
"It just means don't do things that you can't do," Huggins reiterated. "I have this theory that all guys today want to show everything they can't do. So I tell them go ahead. When practice starts we shoot the worst shots, we dribble it off our foot, we throw it behind our back and do all those things we can't do. Then after about 3 1/2 weeks in, I tell them you have shown us everything you can't do. I'm comfortable with that. Now stop doing it. And I think that's what happens."
Huggins related that the idea for the shirts originated with a lesson he learned from Sister Mary Elena at Walsh College.
"Every year she passed out pencil and paper and told us the same things, and after about 25 times I asked her why," he said. "And she told me that people learn in different ways. Some learn by reading, some learn by listening, and some by touching. So I thought that they might be tired of me saying it, so we put it on a shirt so they could read it."
Of course, Huggins got a laugh from the story, but the truth that lies at its core is a powerful one. By reinforcing the message, and just prior to a pressure-packed situation, the veteran mentor hopes to keep his team grounded in the basics. Everything is different and bigger at the Final Four, so grounding the team in a basic lesson has to help it stay focused.
Whether it has the desired effect, or any effect at all, remains to be seen. But there's no doubt that Huggins is using every tactic available to keep his team doing what got them this far. In mountain vernacular, it's ‘Dance with the girl what brung ya.' In the corporate world, it's ‘If it ain't broke, don't break it.' Whatever the verbiage, the message remains the same – do what was successful, and you'll have your best chance at continued success.
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One thing Huggins hopes to not have repeat is the run of bad luck that has befallen several of his teams on the way to potential Final Four trips. The bad luck gremlins followed Huggins into his assigned interview room on Thursday when most of the lights went out partway through the session.
"I guess that means I'm done," Huggins quipped.