Coming into the season, Bobby Huggins looked like he was on the ropes at West Virginia. He had not been able to make the NCAA Tournament in their first two seasons in the Big 12 and their second and third leading scorers - sophomore guards Eron Harris (Michigan State) and Terry Henderson (NC State) - transferred out. However, if there's anything you can learn from observing Huggy Bear's career, it's that you should never count that guy out. Say what you will about how he does it, but there's a reason he has won over 750 games.
To be sure, West Virginia didn't really push themselves in non-conference and they have had a relatively easy slate (as easy as it could be) in the Big 12 so far, with home games against OU and Iowa State and a road game at TCU. So while they have a 15-2 record, there's still a lot we don't know about this team and how their formula will work against high-level competition on the road. They didn't play anyone non-conference - their best road win this season is beating TCU in their 6,000 seat high-school stadium in Fort Worth.
The Mountaineers play classic Huggy Bear basketball, which he perfected in the 90's at Cincinnati with players like Nick Van Exel, Ruben Patterson and Kenyon Martin. They play like a city team without a lot of size - they aggressively press and trap for the full 40 minutes, picking up their men full court and forcing the other team to play at their tempo. 11 different guys got minutes in their 86-65 win over OU on Tuesday. The goal is to wear out the opponent over the course of the game, like a boxer delivering body blows.
Everything on offense revolves around senior PG Juwan Staten. His numbers are down this season without Henderson and Harris, but he's still a very dangerous offensive player with a complete offensive game. He has a knack for scoring around the rim and he's almost automatic from 18-20 feet. Coming into the season, the scouting report on West VA was that if you could slow down Staten, they would have a tough time scoring. How far they go in the Big 12 this season will depend on his supporting cast.
The encouraging sign for West VA fans is how well they played against TCU (when Staten was out with the flu) and OU (when Staten went 1-9 from the field). Huggins has a lot of different guys he can go to over the course of a game - what he needs to figure out is which ones he can trust to consistently generate offense with the game on the line. There's a lot of good teams in the Big 12, but I'm not sure if there are any great ones. With Huggy Bear at the helm, West VA could be in the race for a conference title all season.
PG - Juwan Staten (5'11 185) - Staten is a great NCAA PG who may not quite have the tools to stick in the NBA. He's flat out nasty with the ball in his hands, but he's not super fast or super big and he doesn't really shoot 3's. There isn't always a ton of three-point shooting around him, so you can shade the defense his way and try to force someone else to beat you. On paper, this is a match-up where Isaiah Taylor could really show out. However, if he plays like he has in the losses to OU and OSU, Texas is going to be in trouble.
SG - Gary Browne (6'1 195) - One of their six (!) under 6-3 guards who average between 3-9 points a game. They all have the green light to gamble on defense and push the ball in the open court, so anyone of them could explode on you in a given game. Browne is a senior and one of their better three-point shooters (38%) and he had 15 against TCU with Staten out.
SF - Daxter Miles Jr. (6'3 185) - One of West VA's bigger guards and a freshman, so he could be a real player in a few years. With all these guys, the main question is does he need to be respected from the three-point line and the answer with Miles is kinda (32%).
PF - Jonathan Holton (6'7 220) - Holton is the key to why they have been able to outperform pre-season expectations. He's a freak athlete with long arms who can match up with all five positions at the college level. He's the tip of their press and the guy who can kill you with random traps - he is averaging 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per-40 minutes. He's a real force on the boards and he can put the ball on the floor, but he seems to be under the impression that he is a stretch 4 when he's really not. Holton shoots 18% from 3 but takes 2.2 a game. Let's hope he's not making those shots on Saturday.
** Holton is the perfect example of how Huggy Bear operates. He is a real talent with a rap sheet a mile long. A lot of schools wouldn't have even considered giving this guy another chance. Maybe he has matured and grown up or maybe he hasn't. The key is that he's going to help West VA win basketball games. It's a bottom-line business, I suppose.
C - Devin Williams (6'9 255) - You might remember him as the big guy trying to bring Rec Specs back, but he has turned into a real solid basketball player as a sophomore. He plays a lot like Rico Gathers at Baylor and he has developed a consistent mid-range jumper. He should be an interesting match-up for the Texas big men.
PG - Jevon Carter (6'2 185) - A freshman guard coming off the best game of his career - 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists against OU. He's their leading scorer off their bench, so if he can take a step forward and consistently knock down 3's (30% on the season), it would make them a much more dangerous team.
PF - Nathan Adrian (6'9 235) - A stretch 4 who comes into the game to chew bubblegum and hoist 3's. In 15 minutes a game, he takes 1.2 2PA's and 2.1 3PA's. The problem for Adrian, like with a lot of West VA's players, is that he just doesn't make them all that often (18%). He kind of plays like he's Ryan Anderson's seedier younger brother. He's only a sophomore, so you expect the light to come on for him at some point.
Other guards - Tarik Philip, Jaysean Paige
Other big men - Elijah Macon, Brandon Watkins
Keys to the Game:
1) Be strong with the ball - That's the No. 1 rule against a team like West Virginia, who plays a lot like Mike Anderson, the old Missouri coach who is now at Arkansas. They are going to come at you for 40 minutes. The guards can't get sloppy with the dribble, they can't be indecisive and they have to be ready to knock down open shots. The big men have to secure every rebound and watch out for guys trying to poke it out of their hands. They will try. That style of basketball inherently necessitates habitual line-stepping, so the question is always how much rope will the refs give them. They usually get less on the road, which is why you want to see how West VA holds up away from Morgantown.
2) The big man rotation - If Texas plays 10-deep like West VA, they will have a lot of big men out there who won't be useful against the press and who could struggle to score on smaller players. How much will Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh play in a game like this? The easiest way to beat a press is to have big men who are comfortable enough to dribble and pass in transition, but the presence of Holton makes that a wildcard. Jonathan Holmes has not been playing well lately and I'm not sure Jonathan Holton is the guy you want to try and bust out of a slump against.
3) Isaiah Taylor - At the risk of being needlessly simplistic, this is a big-time game against a big-time PG. If Texas is going to bust out of this slump and get back on track, they are going to need a big-time game from their PG. A good PG at the top of his game can absolutely shred this type of defense - see Trey Burke against VCU - but Taylor hasn't looked right since coming back from the injury. Hopefully this week of practice did well for him. It would be nice if Barnes could put together a successful offensive structure that didn't depend so heavily on our sophomore PG coming back from a broken wrist, but such is life and here we are.
Check out the next 6 games on the schedule - at TCU, vs. Kansas, at Iowa State, at Baylor, vs. Oklahoma State, at Kansas State. If you think that game at TCU is going to be an automatic W you can get that out of your head right now. The way Texas is playing right now, they could easily lose on Monday in the Wilkerson-Griers gynasium. Let's hope Rick Barnes figured a few things out this week because otherwise this could get ugly fast.
So as not to leave on such a down note, here's an excellent Huggins quote from their win over TCU:
Huggins started the game wearing a suit, vest and tie but wound up changing into his trademark pullover windbreaker to start the second half. After the game, he explained his two-part reasoning: "I'm not a banker, I'm a ball coach," he said. "This is kind of how ball coaches coach. And I was sweating, I was just soaking wet."
The funny part was watching all the TCU kids who had probably never heard of him before scrolling through their iPhones and discovering all of Huggy Bear's greatest hits over the years. Let's just say they had no shortage of material to heckle him with, even before the windbreaker came out.
The game is at 5:15 PM Central on ESPN.