The final instigator, Bob Huggins once said, was all the losing. He began his tenure at West Virginia with five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, from 2008 to 2012, and one Final Four. Then the old Big East broke up, and the Mountaineers shipped off to the Big 12, where they received a rude awakening. A Huggins-coached team missed two straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1991, going 13-19 and then 17-16. He had never lost 35 games in a two-year period in a head coaching career that dated back to 1984. “I thought we needed to change the style that we played,” Huggins said in 2015. And then, as if it were that simple, he did.
The frenetic, full-court, pressing style known as “Press Virginia” became the program’s identity known around the country. In 2013-14, West Virginia pressed full-court 2.3 percent of their time on defense, according to Synergy Sports. In 2014-15, it was up to 36.6 percent. For four straight seasons, the Mountaineers pressed at least 35.7 percent of their time on defense, forced turnovers on at least 23.4 percent of all possessions and finished in the nation’s top two in forced turnover rate. They reached four straight NCAA Tournaments and three Sweet Sixteens.
And then Huggins made a change just as drastic as the one before it. He entirely transformed the way his team played — again.
West Virginia pressed 18.4 percent of the time in 2018-19, 20.4 percent in 2019-20 and just 9.8 percent in the first 23 games of this season. The Mountaineers suffered through one rebuilding year in 2018-19, decimated by injuries and the graduation of point guard Jevon Carter. But last season, they were set to return to the NCAA Tournament with a defense that ranked third in the country in adjusted efficiency1 despite sitting at 29th in turnover rate. And this year, they’re off to a 17-6 start heading into tonight’s showdown against Baylor.
|Season||Press Rate||Turnover Rate||Adj. Defense||Tourney?|
Many coaches claim they want to tailor their system to fit their players, but few do it as skillfully as Huggins, basketball’s ultimate chameleon. One summer, he stumbled upon a remote court in Orlando, where he saw a tireless guard running a full-court press all by himself. That recruit, Carter, became the leader of West Virginia’s renaissance. In three of his four seasons, Carter ranked in the top 12 nationally in steal rate.
But when Carter left, West Virginia no longer had the ideal personnel for the full-court press — so Huggins stopped running it. “We’re going to press, but it’s going to take a while,” Huggins said in 2018. Before this season: “We’re going to play at a pretty fast tempo, but I don’t know that it’s going to be the length of the floor.”
What made Huggins’s initial move to the full-court press so impressive was that he had never done anything like it. Huggins reached 14 straight NCAA Tournaments at Cincinnati, and even while his defenses ranked in the top 50 every year from the 1997-98 through 2004-05 seasons, they never ranked in the top 60 in forcing turnovers. Instead, they ranked in the top 25 in effective field-goal percentage defense seven times, meaning they focused not as much on jumping into passing lanes as they did on disrupting shots.
Huggins’s completion of not one but two systematic makeovers essentially puts him in a league of his own, as most of his contemporaries have spent decades adhering to one identity. In 18 seasons under Roy Williams, North Carolina has never ranked outside the top 70 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo metric (and the Tar Heels were one of the top 25 fastest-paced teams in each of Williams’s first 12 seasons).2 At the other end of the spectrum, Tony Bennett’s teams have been even more committed in their approach: Virginia has been one of the 35 slowest-paced teams in the country in each of Bennett’s 12 seasons. This season, the Cavaliers are dead last in adjusted tempo for the fifth straight year.
At Duke, Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t been so invested in one single philosophy, in part because roster turnover in recent years has demanded a versatile system. John Calipari is in the same situation at Kentucky, though his teams have always defined themselves above the rim: Starting with his third season, the Wildcats have always ranked in the top 90 in offensive rebounding percentage and never in the top 270 in 3-point attempt rate. And then there is the most steadfast coach of them all — Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, architect of the vaunted 2-3 zone defense. The Orange have played zone at least 87.3 percent of their time on defense in each of the past 10 seasons, according to Synergy Sports.
Huggins didn’t only push through an offseason transition; he also had to tweak the philosophy of this year’s West Virginia team on the fly, in the middle of the season. After 10 games, the Mountaineers lost a starting big man in Oscar Tshiebwe, who was averaging 8.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game.3 Asked about a potentially season-changing departure, Huggins said, “Did it catch me by surprise? No. What do we do going forward? We’re going to win more games.”
Over the past two months, West Virginia has dropped off only slightly, from 13th in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings on Dec. 29 to 17th entering Monday. The Mountaineers are now playing yet another different style, deploying a free-flowing offensive attack rather than a grinding defensive press. They’re shooting 36.5 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark of Huggins’s tenure, and they rank 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency at 117.3.4
When the dust settles, this should be Huggins’s 10th NCAA Tournament team at West Virginia. It will also, perhaps most impressively, be his third different kind of NCAA Tournament team in Morgantown.