Huggins Banking On Immediate Impact From Jucos
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At this stage of his career, you would think the last thing the fourth-winningest active coach in college basketball would be feeling is a sense of urgency, but 21-loss seasons have a way of injecting such serum into one’s system.
And so it is with Bob Huggins, who sounds as if he welcomes the challenge that lies ahead of him after the worst year of his career. He is intent on recreating what he once had at West Virginia and Cincinnati before that.
The reclamation of his reputation actually began late last season when he finally was pushed to go without Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris, who were dismissed from the squad for breaking school rules.
All of a sudden he was giving a new group of players a chance to begin to institute a culture change, knowing that waiting in the wings for next season was just the second 5-star recruit WVU had ever landed in Oscar Tshiebwe and a solid player out of Cincinnati in Miles McBride.
With Ahmad and Harris gone, others soon followed in Lamont West, Beetle Bolden and, it appears, Sagaba Konate, although his option to return remains should his venture into the NBA draft come up empty.
That opens up nearly a full team of scholarships and opportunities and Huggins has begun by welcoming in a couple of junior college stars in Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman with more to follow.
This dive into the juco pool is not out of desperation but instead out of the urgency Huggins senses in the situation.
“I like junior college guys because there’s a greater sense of urgency,” he said on Monday night in a press conference prior to the Mountaineer Athletic Club’s annual fund raiser in Charleston. “I think sometimes freshmen come in with the idea, ‘Well, I’m a freshman. I’m going to wait my turn.’ I think jucos come in and it’s, ‘I want your job,’ it’s a sense of urgency.
“In our situation — because of what happened a year ago — we need a sense of urgency and I think those guys will help provide that.”
The truth is, this theory was borne out last season when it took a long while for freshmen Jordan McCabe and Emmitt Matthews to take the season by the throat and assert themselves.
One always worries, though, when a coach must turn to junior college players for there is a reason they are at a junior college and not at a mainstream school… be it grades or a lack of maturation or a disciplinary problem.
But Huggins isn’t sure that is the real picture.
“I think when a lot of people hear juco, they get a bad connotation,” he said. “These two guy were both predictors out of high school. They are both good students. I’ve had a lot of juco guys who have been really good guys now, guys who have been pillars in the community.
“I’m a believer,” he continued. “These two guys are good students and who will graduate on time. More important to West Virginia fans, they’re pretty good players.”
Sometimes it’s hard to judge, though. McNeil and Sherman were big-time junior college players, but there is a talent gap between junior college and Power 5 basketball that makes judgements risky.
This is especially true on the defensive side and Huggins fully plans to re-introduce some form of “Press Virginia” basketball next year and is going to have to find a way to work guys who seldom played defense — including those who were on last year’s roster at WVU — to create a new basketball culture.
The junior college players have a big adjustment to make.
“People here are bigger, stronger, faster. They both played against good competition in junior college, but they didn’t play against the size and the strength. You leave guys open in our league, they are going to make it,” Huggins said, speaking from last year’s experience.
“The speed of the game is going to get a whole lot faster for them, particularly with what we’re going to do.” he said.
He believes he has time to install what’s necessary once he gets to this summer.
“The positive is we get 10 practices before we go to Spain. We play three games in Spain. They will get to be around their teammates the whole month of July and August. It’s a win-win situation.” he said.
“By the time everything rolls around, they aren’t going to be Jevon Carter but they will have an idea of what their role is and what they need to get done.”
It’s going to be completely different look next year with Derek Culver having had a year’s practice rather than being thrown in as a freshman after being suspended through the first semester, with Matthews and guard Jermaine Haley bolstered by late-season success, to say nothing of point guard Jordan McCabe, who came into the season a freshman and came out playing more like a junior.
Add in the many talents of Tshiebwe and McBride and the junior college players and expectations are beginning to soar already, probably more than in the past.
“People didn’t get excited about Devin Williams and do you know good he is? People didn’t get excited about Sags, because they were kind of hidden. No one got excited about Jevon Carter,” Huggins noted.
“A lot of it is exposure. JC didn’t get a lot of exposure. Dev and Sags didn’t get a lot of exposure … Dev more than Sags. But that’s the media’s doing more than mine. I just go watch ‘em and if I like ‘em I say let’s go get them.”
Huggins sees Tshiebwe rebounding like Devin Williams did and running the floor like maybe Devin Ebanks.
“Devin Williams’ game evolved year by year at a very rapid pace and I think Oscar’s game will do that because he really cares. He loves the game and wants to be great at it.”