MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As we sat down at the laptop this morning there was every intention to write that while there was much disappointment generated from the way this past season ended for Bob Huggins and his West Virginia University men’s basketball team with a second round loss to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, there was much to like about it, too.
It was, after all, a Top 10 team for part of the year, but each time we tried to write the phrase “good team” it would come out “goo team” and we couldn’t figure out why.
Then, like a bolt from the sky, it hit us.
WVU would have been a “good team” but it had no D.
As much as we wanted to make a positive out of the fact that among the 10 losses the Mountaineers suffered, nine were by five or fewer points, and all of the losses came at the hands of teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament, that fact stuck out.
Certainly, that would signify it to be a “goo team” …. there we go again.
See, the problem was that good teams don’t lose so many close games in the course of a season. They find a way to win and, when they do, the solution isn’t in scoring more points but is, instead, getting key stops at key times in the course of the game, something WVU never could do as the season progressed.
Looking at WVU’s season, a year shortened not only by an early exit from the NCAA Tournament but also by the complications Covid-19 threw at scheduling and getting all games in, we found that the Mountaineers gave up 80 or more points eight times … and they won only three of those eight games.
That is so “UnHugginslike”.
Now it’s true that the game of basketball has changed dramatically in his 14 years at WVU, but did you know that Huggins’ first five teams gave up 80 or more points eight times — combined?
In fact, his second team at WVU never game up 80 points in a game and only eight times gave up more than 70 points in a game.
But this year’s team, not blessed by a shot blocker to protect the rim, allowed player after player to drive to the basket for easy shots. It reached the point that whenever a team needed a basket, it would either get it through a straight-line drive to the hoop or by going in the back door that was left open by the defense.
This year’s team never developed a defensive identity, despite the presence of one of the best defenders Huggins has ever coached in Gabe Osabuohien, a disruptive force as he left everything on the court … sometimes literally.
While a non-factor offensively, Osabuohien would go man-to-man, deflect passes, take charges, dive for loose balls and rebound. He wasn’t really a “Press Virginia” player, nor was he a “zone” player or a “man” player, but a combination of all three and in some ways he was every bit as valuable to the team as was Deuce McBride.
That is why it was so important this week for him to announce that he would take advantage of the extra year granted players by the NCAA and return to school.
He gives Huggins a defensive peg to build around, someone who is capable of building the kind of defensive fire Huggins likes to see permeate his defense.
“It’s hard for most people to appreciate everything he does,” Huggins said. “He keeps balls alive for us and he stops penetration. We’ve had a hard time all year staying in front of our man and Gabe really does a great job stopping penetration. He’s the key to our defense and he’s our last resort. We’re not near as good of a basketball team without him.”
In a social media feature produced by WVU called “Life as a Mountaineer,” Osabuohien last year explained what pushes him.
“My motivation comes from where I come from, not having everything given to me at a young age,” the Arkansas transfer said. “Just having this opportunity, having the whole Mountaineer Nation cheer for me is something I couldn’t imagine growing up.”
Osabuohien grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and at the time he was coming through his formative years, most Canadians were into hockey, not basketball.
“Now I’d say, over the past couple of years, there was a transition to basketball. More and more people are starting to leave Canada and go to prep schools to get ready to go to the NCAA. We didn’t have that when I was growing up,” he explained.
So, his game is still rudimentary when it comes to fundamentals, especially on the more precise offensive side of the ball.
Defense is more “want to” than offense, which is more “can do”.
“I saw I had to play defense if I was going to get time on the court, so I stuck with it, doing the little things no one else wanted to do,” Osabuohien said.
Osabuohien was inspired by an impression in basketball that Canadians were soft, a funny impression for a country where hockey is the national game, but the American basketball game is seen as more physical than the game in Canada.
“I feel like a lot of Canadian kids take that personally and they feel they have to come and prove themselves, show they are the same way as Americans,” Osabuohien said. “I feel like I proved to be a tough guy.
“It means a lot. Most people don’t even make it out of Canada and I got to go to another country, to make a name for myself and have the whole stadium come cheer me on for playing hard. I think I made them proud in Canada,” he said.
Now he hopes to continue that, having been robbed of post-season play in his first year at WVU when the tournaments were canceled due to the pandemic and then this year with the early exit.
“First off, I did lose my Senior Night,” Osabuohien said recently on the Finalfourcast podcast. “I can’t go out like that.”
And then there was that loss to Syracuse.
“Just the way we lost the tournament,” he continued. “It’s unfinished business.”