COLUMBUS, Ohio—West Virginia plays with all the harmony of an orchestra of jackhammers, as it guards full court for 40 minutes, traps as if its per diem depends on it and shoots like it's blindfolded. In other words, this West Virginia team comes straight from the Bob Huggins playbook, a blur of scrappiness and swagger that leaves a trail of turnovers in its wake.
West Virginia outslugged Maryland on Sunday night, 69-59, to advance to the Round of 16 of the NCAA tournament. Maryland turned the ball over a season-high 23 times, senior Dez Wells coughed it up eight and the defining play of the night came when WVU reserve Nathan Adrian crushed Maryland star Melo Trimble with a screen that left him face down on the floor.
“I probably hit him a little harder than I expected to,” Adrian said. “I don’t think he was ready for it, I pretty much blindsided him.”
That’s essentially what West Virginia has done to the Big 12 and NCAA tournament in this most surprising of seasons, as the Mountaineers have suffocated opponents all the way to the Round of 16. It’s a stark turnaround for West Virginia and Huggins, who sputtered through a two-season absence from the NCAA tournament. That drought prompted Huggins to do something atypical for a 61-year old coach who is closing in on 700 wins: he changed everything. In the off-season, Huggins switched to a full-court, pressing and trapping team, an even more aggressive team than he played with during his glory days at Cincinnati. When asked why he endured a philosophical shift to what's known as "Press Virginia" so late in his career, Huggins gave a typical answer: “I like to win. That was the only way we could win.”
That’s pure Huggins, who admitted to his team that he’d been miserable the past two seasons, as West Virginia went 13-19 two years ago and 17-16 last year. Huggins didn’t love his teams, as they struggled with chemistry issues and flopped during WVU’s first two years in the Big 12. “I think it was the hardest two years of his life,” said former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck. “He felt like he let down the entire state. He had said, ‘I’m going to fix it.’ And he did. He fixed it. He fixed it by going back to his roots.”
And an unlikely figure helped lead Huggins there: former Cleveland State coach and press defense maestro Kevin Mackey. In 1986, Mackey led Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 behind Ken “Mouse” McFadden before alcohol and drug issues cost Mackey his job. Huggins bumped into Mackey at LeBron James' camp while out recruiting last July and began picking his brain on pressure defense. Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, attended a WVU practice early in the season and told Huggins he had the perfect personnel to run pressure. When Mackey came back later in the preseason, Huggins invited him to show up two hours earlier to discuss the nuances of pressure. Mackey scouts hundreds of games every season and says the brutish and skill-less modern college basketball player is ideally susceptible to full-court pressure.
“Not many players understand how to play,” Mackey said in a phone interview on Sunday afternoon. “The skill set is sorely lacking. At the end of the day, they can’t shoot the ball. They can’t catch it. They can’t pass it. To me, it cries out, ‘Press us! Press us! Press us!’”
And press Huggins did. Mackey said the premise of his press is that the ball is double-teammed and the remaining three players essentially form a zone triangle to guard the rest of the floor. WVU uses a 1-2-2, 2-2-1 and a man-to-man press, adjusting to how teams attempt to break it. Huggins followed the tenants Mackey held at Cleveland State: “On their case, in their face and take away their space.”
WVU played 12 guys in both of its NCAA tournament games, as it is led by star guard Juwan Staten. But the real star is the relentless waves of pressure that overwhelm the opposition.
“They’re good at it,” Maryland forward Evan Smotrycz said. “It’s what they do. It’s non-stop. We didn’t handle it the right way the whole game.”
Maryland turned the ball over every possible way on Sunday: five-second calls, intercepted passes and balls thrown to press row. It looked overwhelmed and underprepared, as the Terps turned the ball over an average of 12 times per game heading into Sunday. They nearly doubled that total Sunday. And when team medical officials ruled Trimble out for the game after getting accidentally hit by teammate Damonte Dodd with 8:25 left, the Terps had no chance. Dodd’s leg appeared to knock Trimble as he fell to the ground, and he sat at the end of the bench with his head buried in his hands, apparently frustrated that he couldn’t go back in.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Trimble passed all the tests on the bench after the crushing screen from Adrian. He did not after the Dodd hit. “He got kicked in the head, I think,” Turgeon said. “And they said he can’t come back.”
That left Maryland’s press break operating with all the precision and organization of a kindergarten fire drill, a study in the overwhelmed chaos that comes with playing WVU. West Virginia ranks No. 344 out of 345 teams in the NCAA’s total fouls, as it had 772, or 23.3 per game, heading into Sunday. But it is also first in the country with 16.6 offensive rebounds per game, something the Mountaineers need because they are tortured offensively. They need the easy transition points off the press and put backs to win. Huggins pointed out that WVU attempted 16 more shots than Maryland on Sunday, a by-product of forcing 23 turnovers and grabbing 14 offensive rebounds. “Everywhere we go, people say, ‘Well, it’s not pretty.’” Huggins said. “Well, I think it’s beautiful. I love it. I love the fact that we can not make shots and still win, still find a way to score.”
West Virginia will be put to the ultimate test in Cleveland this week, as it will face No. 1 Kentucky, which holds such a significant advantage in size and talent. The allure of the press is to negate such advantages, creating the ultimate referendum for Press Virginia. Huggins is 8-2 in his career against Kentucky coach John Calipari, something that will surely be mentioned throughout the week. As will this often recycled anecdote about one of Calipari’s cousins tending to Huggins in an ambulance after a heart attack.
Not one for sentimentality, Huggins said he was going to celebrate the win by grabbing a piece of pizza and driving back to Morgantown with a staffer. No matter the result from Cleveland this weekend, the re-invention of Huggins has been further validated with WVU’s first run to the Round of 16 since 2010. Huggins may have had a hip replacement this summer that requires him to sit on a sideline stool, but the Mountaineers are moving faster than ever thanks to a coach savvy enough to change everything.