People who know Bob Huggins knew that when the West Virginia Mountaineers bottomed out at 13-19 a year ago, immense changes would be in order in Morgantown. Five players hit the road and Huggins recruited players with more of the type of work ethic he prefers. Those that played through injuries, those that could weather the tough times, and those who would listen and take coaching from one of the best in the business were what was needed on this roster.
Now, three-quarters of the way through the 2013-14 season, the Mountaineers have improved monumentally and, even after yesterday’s loss, sit at 15-11 and 7-6 and in the thick of the Big 12 race. It has been a learning process, but Huggins couldn’t be more pleased with where this young, talented group is even though he notes there is a lot more for them to learn.
“They’re good guys; they didn’t point fingers at each other,” Huggins explained about his virtually new basketball team when they were learning the system early and struggling, “They didn’t get down. They came in everyday and came to work. That’s what you are supposed to do. That’s what this state (West Virginia) is – a whole bunch of people who get up every morning and go to work. We got guys playing through lots of stuff.”
Huggins noted guard Eron Harris, who injured his ankle in a hard fought 83-69 loss at Kansas where the Mountaineers were down only four with five minutes to play. He then mentioned freshman Brandon Watkins who had a couple of his teeth knocked out in a practice, but came back to finish the practice. The mentality of this group is taking shape and is reminiscent of some of Huggs’ best teams in his tenure at Cincinnati.
“We had some guys a year ago, you would have thought they weren’t gonna live,” said Huggins about the toughness of last year’s squad, “Eron had some big games; the same with Terry (Henderson) and Wanny (Juwan Staten). Thery’re down there now and really happy for Remi (Dibo). They understand what Nate (Nathan Adrian) did. That’s a sign they are starting to get it. They are starting to understand what we have to continue to do to be successful. All of that aside, this is a hard hard league.”
Huggins was alluding to what is the peak of the season so far as West Virginia bludgeoned No. 11 Iowa State, 102-77, Monday night in Morgantown.
Dibo, a native of Montreuil, France, scored 20 points in 21 minutes as he made six threes and helped WVU extend a lead that would hit 21 with 6:55 to play. Adrian had nine points, four boards, and three steals in 17 minutes as he executed an all-around floor game with his opportunities. These, of course, supplemented the backcourt of Staten, Henderson, and Harris, who as a three-guard catalyst, have been a huge key in helping the Mountaineers get into the upper echelon of the Big 12 with seven games to play. Those three guards combined for 18-38 from the floor, six threes, and 10 boards. Maybe most interestingly was their combined 16-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio as they played into the mid-30s each in minutes.
“I think that we have a bunch of young guys and our young guys haven’t been here very long except for Kevin Noreen and they are starting to understand what you are telling them,” said Huggins, “We are not running a lot of sets because we are trying to have them to understand what the defense is doing and what counter they make. That’s the best way to play basketball if you can do it.”
In winning four out of five, the improvement on both ends of the floor has been a norm in averaging 81.8 ppg. and shooting 44 percent while allowing only 26 three-pointers (Baylor hit 10) and then forcing 58 turnovers on defense. WVU has scored 82 points off those opponents’ miscues which shows a tightening of their defense as well. This team had trouble guarding the three earlier in the season, but Big 12 opposition has seen a tightening of the arc as five of the last six teams have shot 28.6 percent or lower from deep.
Maybe the most interesting defensive accolade though was holding Melvin Ejim to 1-0f-9 from the floor and only six points in 31 minutes after he stormed TCU for 48 points and 18 rebounds in the Cyclones’ 84-69 win on Saturday. Huggins says the rise in defense is nothing extra he is doing in the game plans. Players just continue to buy in and perfect their games.
“We just changed defenses, he noted of the conquest of the Cyclones, “We didn’t do anything special. They were trying to iso him (Ejim) on the block. He’s a heckuva player and I think we did a better job in transition ‘D’ as well. When you look at the film, they score a ton of points and he scores a ton of points in transition.”
As the Mountaineers go forward, they could be on the cusp of getting back to the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 is possibly the best and deepest league in the nation, top to bottom. They went into Texas yesterday and lost, then Iowa State, and Oklahoma while Baylor , TCU, and Kansas travel to Morgantown. If the improvement continues and the Mountaineers get to 19 wins, WVU should be in the hunt. It has been one of the nation’s best makeovers with regard to how many players left plus a current roster that features three freshman, two sophomores, and four juniors, some who have never played appreciable minutes, in a nine-man rotation.
“I’ll bet you could take a poll right now and most would say we wouldn’t lose those now,” said Huggins of earlier losses where the Mountaineers were finding their way, “We’re a lot better. We were young and made dumb mistakes. We didn’t do fundamental things you need to do. We are not where we need to be but a heckuva lot closer.”
* * *