Lyons Interview, Part 6: The State Of Mountaineer Basketball
Each summer dating back to Fred Schaus, I’ve gotten a chance to sit down with West Virginia University’s director of athletics for an in-depth interview on a wide range of topics. From conference realignment to coaching changes to facilities renovations, we’ve covered an extensive landscape over the last three decades.
This summer I got another chance for a lengthy one-on-one interview with Shane Lyons, who was hired as WVU’s A.D. in January of 2015. As usual, the questions involved a variety of subjects. In a series of articles over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll look at Lyons’ view on those topics. We kicked off this series with a recap of Phase 1 of facilities improvements, then followed that up with details on Phase 2 of West Virginia’s athletic facilities renovations, which Lyons will reveal publicly in the next month. Part three of the series covered his thoughts on the expectations surrounding the Mountaineer football team heading into the 2018 season, while part four dove into expectations for the 2018 football team. Part five gathered his thoughts on the future of college sports on television and via other media.
Today’s part six of this series switches to the Coliseum where we get his views on the state of West Virginia’s basketball program.
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Mountaineer basketball has enjoyed unprecedented success over the past 15 years.
This is not West Virginia only prosperous period, though it can be argued that the current run is the best overall.
WVU amassed a record of 500-190 (.725) from 1939-65 and during that time won the NIT in 1942 (when that tournament was viewed as the national championship) and also earned three other NIT bids and nine NCAA Tournament spots. WVU advanced to the NCAA championship game in 1959, but that was the only time it made it past the second round of the NCAAs during the program’s first 94 years.
The Gale Catlett era at West Virginia (1978-2002/439-276, .614) may have sputtered at the end, but he returned the Mountaineers to glory in his first 11 years. From 1978-89, his squads put together a mark of 233-107 (.685) with six NCAA and three NIT berths. Like Red Brown, Fred Schaus and George King before him, though, Catlett’s clubs had difficulty making it past the second round of the NCAAs. While The Cat led WVU to the Big Dance eight times in his 24 years leading the program, it reached the Sweet 16 just once, 1998.
The hiring of John Beilein (2002-07/104-60, .634) laid the foundation for West Virginia’s current Golden Era, and Bob Huggins (2007-present/255-130, .662) has constructed the wondrous castle on top.
The Mountaineers have had previous periods with better winning percentages, but they’ve never had more sustained postseason success, nothing close. And in today’s world where college basketball success is rated on a postseason run, West Virginia has shined brightest under Huggins.
Prior to Beilein’s arrival, WVU had gone to the NCAA Tournament 18 times, but had won a second round game just twice – 1959 and 1998. In his five years as head coach, Beilein took West Virginia to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 during his only two NCAA trips with the Mountaineers, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
And under Huggins, WVU has had incredible NCAA success. It has gone the Tournament in nine of Huggins’ 11 seasons leading his alma mater, and it has reached the Sweet 16 five times and the Final Four once. Thus West Virginia has had more Sweet 16 trips in the past 11 seasons than it had in the first 103.
“I don’t think we should take basketball’s success for granted. It’s unprecedented success,” noted West Virginia’s director of athletics Shane Lyons. “You look at the league and the type of games we’re bringing in. Last year it was the Kansases, and the Kentuckys of the world. We are seeing so many ranked teams. And in the Big 12, there is so much strength from top to bottom. Eight of the 10 made the NCAA and nine of the 10 made postseason (in 2018), and one could argue that 10 of the 10 should have made the postseason in some form or fashion. It’s a great league, a competitive league. And you have to balance your schedule to accomplish what you want to accomplish.
“Huggs has done a great job of recruiting,” continued Lyons. “It’s national recruiting. We have a young man (Emmitt Matthews) in this class from the state of Washington, and we also have players from Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia and really all over. Coach has done a great job to recruit the type of kid who will be successful under his leadership and in his style of play.”
Huggins has set the bar so high that despite losing seniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles from last year’s 26-11 squad, few envision a dropoff this coming season. WVU has won 25 or more games in each of the past four seasons, and nearly every Mountaineer fan expects that trend to continue in the 2018-19 campaign.
“Again this year the expectations will be very high,” noted Lyons. “We’ll have young guards, but we have other veterans back who will help those youngsters grow. My goal is to see this program break that barrier of the Sweet 16 and go on to the Elite Eight and the Final Four and ultimately win the National Championship.
“We’re right there on the cusp of getting past the Sweet 16,” he added. “The draw hasn’t helped us the past couple of years with the Gonzagas and the Villanovas, who went on to have a lot of success. We just ran into a buzzsaw in each instance. But we were right there, and if a couple shots had gone our way, we would have been in the Elite Eight or even the Final Four.”
Lyons is more hands-on when it comes to football scheduling for the Mountaineers. Huggins’ staff handles most of the scheduling for West Virginia’s men’s basketball team, though Lyons obviously has input.
“Basketball is a little different when it comes to scheduling in comparison to football,” explained WVU’s A.D. “In basketball, you don’t schedule as far out, and there is some good to that and some bad to that. In football you schedule 10, 15 and in some cases 20 years out. But in basketball, it’s more a year or two out.
“Coach Huggins has made it clear that he wants to Pitt more often than not. The people at Pitt now want to play it as well. And it’s the same in women’s basketball. I think everybody is on board. I’m not sure it will always be an annual thing, but we’ll play it more often than not.”
From 1989-2017, West Virginia had played at least one men’s basketball game a year in the Charleston every season but one (1991). But for the second straight year this coming season, the Mountaineers will not visit the state’s Capital City.
“It’s not so much about Charleston, but it’s looking at our schedule and what is best for us,” explained Lyons. “It all started in Charleston with Marshall. Obviously that’s not happening any longer. And we look at our facilities here, and having people come to Morgantown is a good thing. It’s nothing other from a scheduling standpoint than what we can do, what games fit and what fits best for us and what fits best for us as a program to be successful. Is it something we continue to explore? Yeah, we’ll continue to explore it, but to say it’s going to happen every year, we’ll have to see. We have to look at what’s best for our program and having the success in the regular season to make sure we make it to the postseason. There are some instances where you may be able to schedule a Power 5 institution in Charleston as a type of neutral site game, and then return a game to a location near the other team’s home. We’ll continue exploring that. Some of the things I heard from Charleston is they thought we were sending bad games to them. It wasn’t doing us any good or them any good in terms of ticket sales. So, if we’re going to look at it, it’s probably more that type of neutral site game and how that works out.”
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In our final installment in this series, which is slated for July 26, we’ll get Lyons’ thoughts about the state of college athletics.