Coaching Approach, Player Buy-In Fueled WVU Turnaround
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the first time in his 37-year coaching career, Bob Huggins has suffered 20 losses in a season, yet it just may go down as the best coaching job he’s done in what figures to be a Hall of Fame career.
Assuredly, Huggins would disagree with that assessment, for he judges success on wins and losses.
He doesn’t believe in moral victories. Instead, he believes there’s something amoral about defeats.
That extends even to an unexpected run to the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament with a team seeded 10th, which ended on Saturday night when the emotion and spring in their legs was sucked out of them by a hard-charging, hot-shooting Kansas team that eliminated them at a time when they really were believing in themselves.
This was a season in which Huggins and West Virginia had no chance. His team’s medical bills probably exceeded the travel budget. They paid for splints and casts and braces, not on those in supporting roles but on the stars.
Even before they reported for practice there was Sagaba Konate, who well might have been the best player in the Big 12, having major problems coming back from knee surgery. Beetle Bolden, the heartbeat of the team, had a wrist, a sprained ankle and who knows what else before also departing the team.
Lamont West was having problems with his shooting wrist and shooting is what he brought to the team.
What’s more, the prized freshman, Derek Culver, had to taste a bit of Huggins’ old-fashioned discipline … 10 games when he wasn’t even allowed to be part of the team for acting, quite frankly, like he didn’t know what it was like to be a student-athlete.
Add to that two troubled veterans in Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris, who underachieved and eventually had be removed from the roster for violating not Huggins’ rules but school rules.
“Well, the hardest part is, you know, we had so many injuries and we basically lost four starters and these guys have been great,” Huggins said during the tournament. “They believe in what we’re doing. They’re incredibly coachable. They believe we can win.”
Huggins lost players and he lost games … some close, some by 30 points or more. In many ways it figured, for the engine of the Bob Huggins’ signature teams — the press that made WVU “Press Virginia” built around the play of the graduated Jevon Carter — could not be duplicated with so many newcomers playing key roles before they were ready for them.
Huggins went back to basics. He changed much of what he was doing and found something that he isn’t necessarily known for having — patience. He taught defense. He taught passing.
At times he wanted to choke his players but instead wound up hugging them, nursing through a season unlike any a WVU team coached by Huggins had undergone.
The games he lost he could not get back but what he did reclaim was the confidence and the dignity of his players. By the end of the season this was a team that began believing in itself, a team that had stopped turning the ball over 20 or more times a game, a team that shot better, that had Culver sweeping the boards.
“It seems like every game somebody different steps up. Like Emmitt [Matthews] stepped up today [against Texas Tech] . Jermaine stepped up. Derek stepped up. Seems like every game a different guy steps up and we’re guarding better. We’re guarding better and rebounding better, and that’s been a staple of what we’ve done over the years,” Huggins said.
The progress his players made was stunning, especially freshman guard Jordan McCabe, who came in and seemed overmatched physically, but who became the physical and emotional leader of the team.
He came to adopt the edge that Huggins likes from his players, as evidenced when he was asked after losing Kansas if fatigue from playing three games in three days had done in the Mountaineers.
“We worked too damn hard to use a cop-out and say fatigue,” he responded testily. “This team could have won three, four or five games in a row and won a championship if we just came out with the same intensity.”
Instead of basking in the success of the two surprise wins over Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas Tech, McCabe talked of the pain that comes with defeat — a pain you can only feel if you believed you were going to win coming in.
“Right now I think it’s good to let this sit in your stomach and burn. I always thought it was good after a loss like this to let it burn,” he said.
Someone wanted to know from McCabe what they could take from this experience.
“What we can take from this is that we know we can beat any team in the Big 12,” he said. “It would have been great to learn from our mistakes back in November but at least now we have a nucleus of guys right now who can build.”
And no one argued with him.
Now, it’s on to the CBI, a tournament that begins at home on Wednesday against an as yet unannounced opponent, that will let them keep the momentum going.
“That’s why everyone is excited to keep on playing,” Haley said. “We don’t want the season to end like this.”