KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As hard as it is to believe, this is the truth: The West Virginia program that came here last season as the No. 2 seed and played into the final minute of final game of the Big 12 tournament, the program that’s the No. 2 seed this year and determined to reach the final again, had never won a game at this event game before beating TCU in the quarterfinal last year.
Three visits, three losses.
In fact, WVU’s last conference tournament win before that was the championship game of the Big East tournament in 2010. That team won three games at Madison Square Garden, four games in the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four. The next five WVU teams won three of 12 postseason games. One settled for an NIT bid. Another didn’t even get there.
“I used to try to sell our guys on how we were the best team in March, and for a while, we were pretty good,” coach Bob Huggins said. “For whatever reason, we had some bad Marches. I don’t know. I wish I knew. I’d be a hell of a lot better coach if I knew.”
Deep down, Huggins knows why. Or rather, who.
The end of the season had become the start of player exits. He lost two players from the 2011 team, two from 2012, five from 2013 and three from 2014.
“We were scrambling,” Huggins said. “We had some guys who didn’t want to be here and thankfully left. I know I don’t want people who don’t want to be here.”
Since then, Huggins has had one player leave the program. In these past three seasons, the Mountaineers have won 75 of 101 games and 38 of 58 games against Big 12 teams. They reached the Sweet Sixteen one year and were a No. 3 seed in the following NCAA tournament. In this regular season, WVU didn’t lose a game by more than nine points, something that hadn’t happened in 56 years, and counted three of its seven losses in overtime.
On Thursday night, the 11th-ranked Mountaineers (24-7) look to extend an unusual and appropriate streak. They’ve led in the second half of 31 straight games. There’s an explanation, and it’s again about people.
“I think the coaches did a great job of recruiting,” said junior guard Daxter Miles, a quintessential quote because Miles is one of the recruits, one who is proud and boastful and justified to be both. “As soon as I came in, I knew everything I needed to know about the group of guys we had.”
Miles and Jevon Carter were freshmen in 2015, players recruited and signed before the annual exodus that followed the 2014 season. They weren’t scared away.
Tarik Phillip and Jaysean Paige came after that wave of departures, and they were junior college transfers, mature players who were running out of time and wouldn’t take the comforts of Division I basketball for granted.
Elijah Macon sat out as a true freshman in 2014. Jon Holton sat out as a junior college transfer that same season.
Huggins had six new players who picked WVU and who wanted to stay there, no matter what had happened to the team or to themselves beforehand.
“I’d like to say I’m smart enough to do that,” Huggins said. “I’m not,”
Yet Huggins — magna cum laude, by the way — is smart enough to see what’s happened. He tasked the 2015 team, one that had the newcomers as well as senior guards Juwan Staten and Gary Browne, with learning and playing the full-court press. Everything and everyone has grown from there.
Surely Huggins would have found his way back to 20-win seasons and high seeds and fun runs in the NCAA Tournament, but maybe it doesn’t happen as fast without this roster and this defense.
“It changed our identity,” Phillip said. “I don’t think it would have gelled as fast without it. Everyone came in with the same mindset. We were going to guard and create havoc.”
The turnaround that began that season actually started during the summer before it, when everyone was trying to get to know one another in pickup games at the practice facility. The Mountaineers were months away from the season, from learning they’d be pressing, and little did they know they were getting a head start.
“Jevon picked me up full-court,” Phillip remembered. “I usually pick up and guard full-court in open gym, but he did that to me. I’m looking at him like, ‘OK, this guy’s got an edge to him.’ Nobody does that in open gym.”
When the team did start practicing in the fall and attempted to move on from an opening-round loss to Georgetown in the NIT, Huggins wasn’t sure who or what he had. He didn’t even have a starting lineup in his head. The first time he needed a lineup on the floor, he asked for five players.
“I don’t like losing,” Miles said. “That’s always been with me throughout my life. If I can change something and the coaches believe in me, why not put yourself in position to do it?”
So Miles walked out onto the floor, dubbing himself a starter with a symbolic act that fits this group.
“I don’t think we have any guys who are scared,” Huggins said. “If there’s one thing we want to recruit, we want to recruit men. We don’t want to recruit a bunch of kids.”