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Is this the year Huggins gets a break?

Bob Huggins is so close now.

Somewhere out there is another Final Four appearance for a coach who knows the demands of a long road. After a 14-year wait, he's feeling the tingle of the Final Four once again.

Huggins has had better teams than the one that will take the floor tonight against Kentucky in the Carrier Dome (7 p.m., Ch. 4). More athletic. Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Yet he's been to the Final Four just once.

Huggins was a young coach in Year Three of what was perceived to be a long rebuilding process at Cincinnati when he took the Bearcats to the Final Four in 1992. The next season, he went to the Elite Eight.

"I'm thinking this isn't that hard," he said.

Dan Marino probably felt the same way after his first Super Bowl.

Tonight is only Huggins' second Elite Eight appearance since 1993 and his first since 1996.

Now Huggins admits, "It is kind of hard, though."

Maybe Huggins is just unlucky. Had Allen Jackson not been hurt, maybe Huggins would have had enough backcourt depth to beat eventual national champion North Carolina in the regional final in 1993. The presence of injured point guard Keith LeGree would have freed up another perimeter defender in '96 when Mississippi State's Dontae' Jones went nuts in the regional final.

In 2000, Huggins had the best team in the country when Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament. Minus college basketball's player of the year, the Bearcats were bounced in the second round.

Once, Huggins attended a speaking engagement along with Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum when someone asked the former Louisville coach what it takes to win a national championship.

"You have to be lucky, and you can't be unlucky," said Crum, who had already pocketed two titles.

Then Crum pointed at Huggins and said, "That's the most unlucky guy I know."

Luck, or lack thereof, was on Huggins' mind when point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant broke his right foot this week in practice. He's down another ball-handler, and the way West Virginia tossed the ball around against Washington on Thursday, Bryant was sorely missed.

But these Mountaineers are the essence of Huggins basketball. Defensive-minded. Physical. Brawlers. Against Cornell, Kentucky got to the rim whenever it wanted and swooped in for countless dunks and layups. Does anybody really believe West Virginia will allow the same thing to happen?

"West Virginia is one of the best teams left," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Maybe the best team left."

The core of this team is its sophomores -- Bryant, and forwards Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. They are a heralded recruiting class that Huggins worked hard to secure. The pulse of the team, however, is senior Da'Sean Butler, the leading scorer and a John Beilein recruit who was one of the last to buy in.

"When I first heard he was coming I thought, 'Oh, here we go, I'm going to Michigan,' " Butler said. "I talked to a former player of his from Cincy and he told me about the man that he is and how he makes you a better player, so I'm glad I didn't leave because now I would be doing all kinds of nothing."

That this group has matured so well must be heartening to Huggins. They could be the ones who change his fortunes.

This is the Mountaineers' third Elite Eight appearance in school history, the previous two coming in 1959 and 2005 under Beilein. West Virginia's 30 wins are a school record, surpassing the mark set by the Jerry West-led 1959 team that lost in the national championship game.

Maybe Huggins can reach 31 victories and another Final Four. With a little luck.


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