Back To The Future For WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There was a point earlier this season, after Gabe Osabuohien had been cleared to play and Bob Huggins had revamped his defense, that John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, called his old buddy Huggins.
Calipari revealed during the recent SEC coaches conference call previewing the annual Big 12-SEC Challenge, what he had said on that call.
“I told him. I said, ‘Geez, you’ve got rebounding, your toughness, your defense, your scoring.’ I said, ‘Bob, you guys could do this.’”
By “do this” Calipari was talking about being a contender for the national title, especially in a year where there are no super teams.
Certainly Huggins was pleased to hear that from someone who has “been there, done that,” someone he respects, but he found far more intriguing something Calipari also said during the call.
“He said, ‘Why did you go back to your Cincinnati defense?’” Huggins revealed.
Huggins has been one to shape his defense to his team throughout his career. When he took over for John Beilein here he went with what Beilein was using, mostly a 1-3-1 defense.
As his personnel changed and Jevon Carter came along, he changed over to “Press Virginia,” which became a trademark.
But this year things were different again, with two athletic big men in Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, and when Osabuohien became eligible early in this season he had three big men, to say nothing about Jermaine Haley, a 6-foot-7 guard, to cover players out to the 3-point line.
He had put Calipari’s suggestion into the recesses of his mind until one day in practice he decided to make a switch.
“I got PO’d in practice. That’s really how it happened. I basically said, ‘I’m trying to make it easier for you guys and you are driving me crazy. Let’s go back to what I know best and you guys adjust. Instead of me adjusting, you adjust,’ Huggins said.
“That’s basically what happened,” he continued. “I,’m blessed that Larry Harrison was with me for 10 or 11 years, whatever, at Cincinnati and Erik Martin played for me and Ronnie Everhart has been around a long time and basically tried to do what we did at Cincinnati defensively. He helped put in what we now are doing on ball screens and that is working out pretty good.”
Alway a defense first guy, Huggins has really put something together as he showed again against Missouri on Saturday, beating the Tigers, 74-51, while holding them to 28.3 percent shooting for the game and 26.9% shooting from 3-point range.
They forced 16 turnovers and had 10 steals.
So what was the Cincinnati defense and how did it compare with what this defense is for WVU?
“For the most part in my time at Cincinnati we had elite athletes. They couldn’t shoot it or pass it, these guys can. From a sheer athletic standpoint these guys can do some stuff,” Huggins said.
“Initially, I was hesitant to the spread the floor that much with Derek and Oscar for fear of getting in foul trouble and them having to guard somebody off the bounce,” he added. “What happened was, it wasn’t any plan to do it. We played the non-conference game and their four man was really the two man at our height, so Derek was out there guarding the bounce.
“Then, if we got any switch kind of situation or if something happened in transition, Oscar ends up out there guarding the bounce.”
Sometimes they did get in foul trouble, but a funny thing happened. They proved they could do it.
“It’s like anything else, the more you do something, the better you get at it,” Huggins explained. “Now we have no fear to have Derek guard anyone whatsoever because we think he can guard anyone and stay out of foul trouble.”
And Tshiebwe can do the same off switches while Osabuohien is their best defender at 6-7 and can do almost anything out on the court defensively.
He changed a lot of things, adding life to the defense.
“When we are playing he way we can we can stop anybody in the country,” Osabuohien said after the Missouri game.
“Our defense energizes our offense,” Haley added.
So how does this defense compare to what Huggins ran in Cincinnati?
“We don’t switch like those teams did. We switch if we absolutely have to. We help. We were so athletic in Cincinnati that we got help to the ball like this [Huggins snaps his fingers]. We’re getting better there. Gabe [Osabuohien] is like the guys we had in Cincinnati — can’t shoot, can’t dribble but he can go out there and guard anybody.
“That’s kind what we have.”