Nothing motivates change in sports more than losing.
After struggling in their first two seasons as a member of the Big 12, West Virginia underwent a change that represented quite the departure from their head coach’s usual defensive approach, because that head coach was not accustomed to losing.
In Bob Huggins’ first five seasons at his alma mater, West Virginia won an average of 24 games. The 2010 team won 31, reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1959.
To get an idea of just how long ago that was, Fidel Castro came into power in Cuba in 1959. The Mountaineers went five full decades without seeing a Final Four before the 6-foot-8 West Virginian showed up. Huggins always seems to have a negative connotation thanks to bad boy brand he built around his powerhouse Cincinnati program in the 90’s and early 00’s, but understand this: the man has won 765 games in his career. That didn’t happen by accident. He can coach.
But things changed upon the Mountaineers’ arrival in the Big 12 in 2013. They won just 13 games in their debut season and 17 the following year. While there were some close defeats during those two seasons, the common theme was that the Mountaineers didn’t defend with the aggressiveness many had come to expect from Huggins-coached teams. Part of that was having to adjust their personnel to fit their new conference home.
“(The Big 12) was a different style of play,” Huggins said, “more of a ‘play off the bounce’ kind of league.”
But the main thing was that in those two seasons, the Mountaineers could not get the stops they needed to close out games. And that was a departure from what many are used to seeing from Huggins-coached teams.
“If you know Coach Huggins and his philosophy, he’s always been a ‘defense-first’ coach and prides himself on his teams playing very good team defense,” WVU associate head coach Larry Harrison, who’s been a member of Huggins’ staffs for 17 years at both WVU and Cincinnati, said. “Those two years where we had the losing season and then went to the NIT, it got to a point where when we needed a stop we just didn’t do it as a team and we didn’t have one individual we felt we could depend on defensively to get that stop.”
Last year’s group got back to those defensive principles, only in a slightly different manner: their use of tenacious, full-court pressure that forced turnovers on a nation’s best 28 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
And while the Mountaineers’ effective field goal percentage defense (52.7 percent) was worse than the numbers produced the previous two seasons, that was actually by design. The goal of this new defense, of this press, was to raise hell, take risks and force turnovers that led to layups and open jumpers in transition; easy points that come before defenses get set. When an opposing backcourt was able to beat the press — when West Virginia’s gambling defense didn’t pay off — they got better looks at the rim, only they got less of them.
The end result: 25 wins, a Sweet 16 appearance, and a new identity.
“Press Virginia” was born.
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While attributes such as athleticism, length and quickness get mentioned when discussing pressure defense, the most important key has little to do with physical ability. The key for any successful pressure defense is that the team buy into the concept; that no matter what everyone is on board with the system and won’t abandon ship at the first sign of tumult.
“I thought we needed to change the style that we played,” Huggins said. “I spent time with Kevin Mackey, who I thought did the best job of anybody at the college level with pressure defense. I thought our guys embraced it, and that was probably as key as anything. They really did embrace that style of play.”
Mackey, whose been in basketball for more than four decades, made note of in his conversations with his longtime friend before the start of last season. Now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, Mackey used pressure defense to take 14th-seeded Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 in 1986. And in his view West Virginia’s personnel and the current status of the college game lent itself to the Mountaineers being able to successfully utilize pressure defense. But none of that would have mattered had the head coach not bought into the change himself.
“A number of people told me he won 13 games more than he should have last season,” Mackey noted. “Kids who should have won 13 or 14 games won 25, went to the Sweet 16. In my own opinion Bob’s a hall of fame coach, he’s a great defensive coach. He had the fundamentals down cold 35 years ago, and it was a matter of his adjusting his thinking to go to the full-court (pressure) all the time.”
Just as important as the mindset was the personnel, something West Virginia didn’t have in their first two seasons in the Big 12. Having the pieces needed to be more aggressive defensively allowed the coaching staff to move forward with its plan, with the hope that the defensive intensity would return as a trademark of the program.
“I was with him at Cincinnati in the 90s when we did press quite a bit, more three-quarter court, a lot of 2-1-2 pressure rather than the full-court that we’re doing now,” Harrison said. “Since we’ve been at West Virginia we’ve been trying to get back to that point, we just didn’t feel like we had the personnel to do that.”
“Going into last season with the number of guards we had, we felt we’d be really competitive. And the depth we had, we felt that this was the time because they all wanted to play. That’s the thing that (Huggins) told the guys. ‘If you want to play, then I need all you guys to play as hard as you can for as long as you can and then we can rotate you in and out and then everybody will play.’ But you have to buy in.”
That buy-in is key not only for the beginnings of a new system, but also throughout the course of a season. Turning into a high-level pressure defensive team doesn’t happen overnight.
“The kids can tell if you’re really committed to it,” Mackey continued. “Bobby committed to it. When you first start to teach [a press], it’s a fourth grade press and that’s the best it is. And then after a week it’s a sixth grade press, and after three weeks it’s a high school press.”
“I saw them at the beginning of the season against LSU, which was really gifted physically and had a couple NBA guys, and West Virginia lost by one. I told Bobby it’s a high school press. I then saw him in December at Madison Square Garden against NC State and he had a big-time college press.”
Perhaps most important, however, is actually winning. It’s true with any style, really, but it is particularly important when trying to instill a new style of play into a program. Winning is what the kids and the coaches — hell, everyone that’s involved with or supporting the program — care about. When a team is stacking Ws, the players start to realize: ‘Hey, maybe coach knows what he’s talking about.’
West Virginia won 14 of their first 15 games to start the 2014-15 season, the lone defeat being that one point loss to LSU. It was clear that West Virginia was taking to its new defensive style. One of those watershed moments came in West Virginia’s win over UConn in the title game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff, as they harassed the Huskies into committing 19 turnovers on the night.
And while UConn may not have finished the season as an elite team, that program has an elite name and an elite brand. They were the reigning national champions, after all. Beating them gave the Mountaineers an early indication that this new system could be successful.
“The UConn game gave us some credibility as a team, and also made the players feel much better about what we were doing,” Harrison noted. “You beat the defending national champs, and you do it by playing our style. One of the really big keys is that they would get up, then we would get up, and the players started to see the effect that our style of play was having on our opponents.”
Ten players averaged at least 12.9 minutes per game last season, with guard Juwan Staten (31.2 mpg) leading the way while also pacing the Mountaineers in scoring (14.2 ppg) and assists (4.6 apg). Forwards Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton, with the latter playing at the head of the WVU press, were among the key contributors as well, and the team’s depth and activity helped them mask deficiencies in other areas.
The most notable issue for this group was their lack of quality shooters. They shot 40.8 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three, finishing the year with an effective field goal percentage of 46.1 percent. Their shooters are more streaky than prolific, and that bore itself out in the percentage numbers West Virginia put up last season. But even with those low percentages West Virginia still managed to finish 45th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Because they were one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams, grabbing more than 40 percent of their own misses. The Mountaineers attempted 512 more shots from the field than their opponents.
Quantity over quality.
“They have guys like Jevon Carter, (Jaysean) Paige, among others, who can certainly heat up and make shots. But the end result of this style is they create more turnovers and more offensive rebounds,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “The fact that they get way more field goal attempts than their opponents, it makes up for the very streaky shooting. I always say, ‘you have to create an offense with a missed shot in mind,’ because even if you shoot 45 percent from the field 55 percent of the shots are coming off as misses.”
“Their offense is designed with the missed shot in mind. In other words, they’re not worried about making or missing jump shots,” Fraschilla continued. “If they go in, great; if guys heat up, great. But they’re also very cognizant of the fact that a missed shot [can be] a pass to Jonathan Holton or Devin Williams or Elijah Macon. That’s how they look at it. You can analyze [the shooting] until the cows come home, but the fact is they get way more field goal attempts than their opponents.”
“They make up for their lack of shooting with their effort both offensively and defensively.”
This season, eight of West Virginia’s top ten players in minutes return; Staten and fellow guard Gary Browne being the departures. Add in a four-member recruiting class that includes four-star forward Esa Ahmad, and the Mountaineers have the experience, depth and talent needed to pick up where they left off a season ago.
“This year that mindset is already there, whereas last year we had to develop it. We had to convince the guys that this was the way we were going to play,” Harrison said. “Now, when our guys are in individual workouts or even in open gym, they’re trapping and picking up full court. It’s kind of like, ‘this is the way it is, you’re at West Virginia, you’re playing for Bob Huggins and this is the way we play.’ It’s caught on, and the new guys are getting used to it as well.”
There are adjustments to be made, however, especially with the renewed emphasis on physical play in college basketball. West Virginia committed more fouls than any team in the country a season ago — 821 to be exact, or 23.5 fouls per game. While there are risks to be taken in the type of defensive system West Virginia employs, they can’t afford to send opponents to the line at a similar clip even with the depth that they enjoy.
And then there’s the need to account for the loss of Staten. While he was the team leader in points and assists, Staten also provided the Mountaineers with a security blanket of sorts down the stretch. With the game in the balance they had a finisher, someone who more times than not made the play that needed to be made. And after going through two seasons in which they struggled to close out games on both ends of the floor, that’s a big deal.
“I think the biggest challenge is going to be finishing games,” Huggins said when asked about how they’d account for the loss of Staten. “He was virtually impossible to trap, he didn’t turn the ball over, and for the most part he made free throws. So there was a guy who you could always put the ball in his hands and trust him with the ball.”
But thanks to their experience, West Virginia does have options capable of assuming that role, namely Jevon Carter.
“He has really embraced that position,” Huggins said. “I think he wants the ball.”
For all of the different areas from which coaches look to extract some kind of motivation, there’s no greater catalyst for change than losing. After two seasons of struggling in the Big 12 West Virginia was faced with a choice: either adapt or continue to languish on the periphery of their new conference. Huggins and his staff adapted, embracing an approach that was a departure from what he’s done in the past.
The move paid off.
“Press Virginia” is here to stay.