There’s one thing you always can say about Bob Huggins when it comes to his time as West Virginia University’s men’s basketball coach — if the Mountaineers are down, they aren’t down for long.
There have been two losing seasons in Morgantown since Huggins took over in 2007. They sat six years apart. And those teams rebounded the next year as well as … well … Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe are pulling down rebounds right now.
The first time WVU stumbled was that dismal 13-19 finish in 2012-13. Huggins retooled the roster and created a team that reached the NIT the next season and then fired off four straight NCAA tournament appearances, including three in the Sweet 16.
And as bad as that season was, last season was worse. Sure, WVU won 15 games, but it lost 21, the most by any team in Mountaineer history. The young players struggled. The veterans were unreliable at best, poisonous at worst. Huggins booted some from the roster in the middle of the season.
They were picked to play in the CBI, mainly because they were willing to pay for home games, and got blown out by Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals. It was rock bottom for the program during Huggins’ tenure.
Yet, true to form, he did not let it become a trend. The way this season is going, last season looked like an aberration.
In one offseason, Huggins rebuilt the team to push it back into the nation’s top 20, back among the contenders for the Big 12 title and a high NCAA tournament seed and back among the best defenses in college basketball. And considering how bad WVU was last year in that last category, that’s nothing short of a minor miracle.
Some of the Mountaineers’ 2018-19 defensive statistics weren’t just the worst in the conference. They were some of the worst in all of college basketball — 293rd in field goal percentage defense, 285th in 3-point field goal percentage defense, 313th in scoring defense.
Now contrast that with where WVU sits entering Saturday’s home game against Texas Tech — third in field goal percentage defense, second in 3-point field goal percentage defense, 20th in scoring defense. Holding Oklahoma State to 41 points in a win in Stillwater was downright historic. That was the fewest the Mountaineers have allowed in a conference game since holding Massachusetts to 40 in 1986.
How in the world could any team make that drastic of a turnaround in such a short period of time? Mainly, WVU has players willing to play defense. Last season, too many were, as Fran Fraschilla coins it, “playing in tuxedos.” They weren’t willing to mix it up, weren’t willing to get grimy, when getting grimy on defense is the calling card of Huggins’ West Virginia teams.
It helps that the Mountaineers have one of the best frontcourts in the country in Culver and Tshiebwe. The two combine to pull down more than 19 rebounds per game. Add to that Miles McBride’s rapid ascension as an essential player on the court, as well as Huggins’ brilliant offseason move of convincing Gabe Osabuohien to transfer in. The former Arkansas player is a Swiss army knife. He doesn’t score much, but he helps in nearly every other category.
That’s how WVU can struggle to put points on the board — its 71.9 points per game is 182nd in Division I — and still have just two losses on its ledger.
Not every coach in the country is willing to blow up a roster after one bad year. Some may be too proud to admit that a plan doesn’t work and, hey, just give it one more year to see if it all comes together. Huggins isn’t willing to let his alma mater flounder like that.
Huggins meant it when he said last season he would fix things. That he has once again done it so quickly reinforces his place as one of the best coaches in college basketball history and the best men’s basketball coach in WVU history.