Is Turkish beast Deniz Kilicli the missing piece for West Virginia?
Forced to sit out WVU's first 20 games, Kilicli debuts Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh
Bob Huggins calls the 6-foot-9, 260-pounder "our best low-post scorer"
Kilicli could make West Virginia a viable dark-horse pick for the Final Four
The biggest wild card in college basketball's stretch run will make his debut on Wednesday, against Pittsburgh at a sold-out WVU Coliseum.
His name is Deniz Kilicli (pronounced "Kah-LITCH-luh"), and there's certainly a chance that his impact on West Virginia's season will be limited. It would be unfair to him to expect too much. He's a Turkish freshman who's only been in the U.S. for a little more than two years, was forced by the NCAA to sit out for the Mountaineers' first 20 regular-season games, and has only seen college action in two exhibitions. He's not yet in peak game condition.
But Kilicli is also a rugged, 6-foot-9, 260-pound power forward who could be an NBA draft prospect in a few seasons, and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins already calls him "our best low-post scorer." So can you blame us for being intrigued, when no other top-10 team is adding a new player like this in February? The Mountaineers have gone 17-3 (and 6-2 in the Big East) without Kilicli, but, as his prep school coach from Mountain State Academy, Rob Fulford, says: "One thing they're kind of missing is an a--hole. And he can play like an a--hole."
Kilicli's college career, like that of numerous international players before him, was stalled by an NCAA amateurism issue -- one that seems unfair, and, strangely, involves a member of George Mason's magical run to the Final Four in 2006. In 2007-08, Kilicli was playing for Pertevniyal, the Turkish Second Basketball League (or TBL2) farm club of Istanbul powerhouse Efes Pilsen. Pertevniyal is typically a team of promising young Turks, and Kilicli never signed a pro contract. Prior to that season, though, the big club signed former Patriots star (and Sports Illustrated cover boy) Lamar Butler, and when he didn't make Efes Pilsen's roster, he spent the season as a starter for Pertevniyal.
Because Kilicli had played in games with a pro, the NCAA defined him as professional and handed down an 11-game ban, with nine more games tacked on for meal-and-lodging benefits received while playing with Butler -- harsh, given that Americans in premiere AAU programs can legally stay in posh Vegas hotels and receive free food.
"I didn't know any NCAA rules at the time," Kilicli said, and this is understandable, given that he was 17 at the time and barely spoke any English. "I thought if you don't get paid, you're alright."
That wasn't the case, and Kilicli had to cope with being ineligible for the first three months of his freshman season, taking out his frustrations in the weight room and on the practice floor. "He handled it well -- a lot better than I would have," says Huggins. "I wouldn't have been very happy. How was he supposed to know [not to play with Butler]?"
It was worst when the Mountaineers went on the road, because Kilicli had to stay behind in Morgantown. While they were at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., over Thanksgiving weekend, he was stuck, alone, in an international dorm that had remained open on campus. He tried to watch games on ESPN, but it became so frustrating ("I'd get too pissed, and have to turn it off," he says) that he'd just resort to following the score on the Internet.
Not that seeing games live wasn't difficult, too: During West Virginia's lone home loss this season, to Syracuse on Jan. 16, he watched in agony as Orange big men Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson bulled their way to the rim for a combined 14 points and 17 rebounds.
"I came to America to play basketball," says Kilicli, "and I see all these guys in the Big East who are so big, strong and talented, and I just want to compete with them. I kept thinking to myself, 'Let me out there with Onuaku!' "
The Mountaineers won't get a regular-season rematch with Syracuse, but they won't mind having a 260-pound bruiser to go up against plenty of the teams remaining on their schedule, especially Pitt (Feb. 3 and Feb. 12), Cincinnati (Feb. 27) and Georgetown (March 1). Huggins already has an abundance of forwards at his disposal, so many that he once used a five-forward lineup with Da'Sean Butler at the point. But pairing Kilicli with stellar 6-8 rebounder Kevin Jones in the post, while using 6-9 Devin Ebanks at shooting guard and 6-7 Butler on the wing, could make West Virginia, which already ranks third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (at 42.7 percent), an even scarier team on the offensive glass -- and a viable dark-horse pick for the Final Four.
Huggins doesn't know when, exactly, he's going to use Kilicli on Wednesday; the coach only says, "We're gonna throw him in there and see what he does." Kilicli reportedly can, like a lot of European big men, pass and shoot well. The original tape he sent to Fulford -- through Pertevniyal teammate Can Korkmaz, who was already headed to the Beckley, W.Va., prep school -- contained so many shooting clips that Fulford said he was worried that it was all Kilicli did. When he tried out for the team in person, he banged around more than enough to earn a scholarship. Nowadays, he mainly considers himself "another big body" to add to West Virginia's lineup. Fulford says Kilicli is ambidextrous (shots in the lane are usually left-handed, while jumpers are right-handed) and has hands so enormous that "when he holds a basketball, it looks like he's holding a tennis ball."
In the Mountaineers' two exhibitions, Huggins threw Kilicli into the fire. On Nov. 8 against Mountain State University, he had eight points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. On Dec. 5 against the University of Charleston, he started (instead of normal post Wellington Smith) and scored 18 points -- an dished out five assists and grabbed four boards -- in 28 minutes. Bob Bolen, whose Mountain State University team is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in NAIA, said he thought Kilicli "fit right into West Virginia's rotation, and can definitely help them." In an act of Mountaineer state solidarity, Bolen declined to share film of that exhibition with West Virginia opponents who requested it in November, and thus limited footage of Kilicli is in circulation. (When I called Bolen from a number he didn't recognize last week, he was initially hesitant to share much info about Kilicli, for fear I was a Big East assistant snooping for intel.)
Big East teams should have tape of Kilicli soon enough. He's been waiting for this Pitt game since the fall, recently switching his countdown from days to hours as the big moment approaches. "It's just a little over 48 now," he excitedly said on Monday, and he's been doing everything he can to make the time pass, from playing his guitar, to extending his workouts, to sitting in WVU Coliseum, staring at empty seats, imagining what Wednesday night will be like. No one, not even Kilicli, is sure of what will happen. But we can all, at the very least, permit ourselves to be curious.
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