By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
When West Virginia suffered a home defeat a week ago it was taken as a crushing blow, it being the last chance the Mountaineers had at adding a quality victory to their résumé from non-conference play.
It left them in a precarious position for post-season, already in possession of five defeats heading into Big 12 play, where it generally was conceded that a .500 season would be a major step forward.
So why, while sifting through the ashes of that Purdue loss, does it now seem that it might have been one of the best things to happen to the Mountaineers?
Let us first understand one thing. Bob Huggins will find nothing good in any defeat.
In fact, he verbalized following Sunday’s easy 82-45 victory over William & Mary the attitude he is looking to instill in this team.
“You almost have to get to the point where winning is expected and losing is an almost terrible experience. That’s where we got to get to,” he said.
To reach that point he had to get across to his group that winning will come about only through tough, disciplined defensive play, which may have been the hidden treasure to come out of the Purdue loss.
West Virginia lost to Purdue because they could not stop them from driving to the basket.
It was simple, really. WVU was throwing up 3-point shots and were off terribly, making just 3 of 18, while Purdue would get inside for a layup whenever it wanted.
Huggins was furious after the game and vowed he would fix what was wrong.
“Coming back on the 26th, I think the last thing they thought they would do was watch so much film,” Huggins said.
But he was determined to show them the mistakes they were making to allow straight drives to the hoop.
“We don’t guard at the end of game the way you need to guard at end of game,” he said. “We even played a 2-3 zone because we wanted them to shoot over us and they just drove to the basket.”
Film was only part of the fix.
The rest was sweat, the kind of sweat Huggins became famous for bringing out of his players.
“We came out with a bad taste in our mouth after the Purdue game. We wanted to show something and we did. We played good defense, held them to 42 points,” freshman Nathan Adrian said after his 16-point performance against William & Mary.
“Practice this week was pretty intense. He was getting into us, like he should. We should never have lost that Purdue game. Apparently it worked, so I hope he keeps doing it.”
Rest assured that Huggins will keep doing it, because it produced results.
“This was our best defensive performance of the season,” point guard Juwan Staten said. “This week in practice we had a lot more people talking. It’s usually a couple of the captains speaking and the coaches, but this week we had everyone going. Everyone was enthusiastic and getting on each other and holding each other accountable for what we were doing on the court.”
And, being a veteran, Staten understands how vital defense is, especially in the Big 12.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is defense. These teams in the Big 12 are all dangerous at all five positions. I don’t really feel there is a true position in the Big 12. You have big point guards, you have small bigs … it’s about playing basketball and defending. It’s all about defending. As long as we can defend each position we should be fine.”
Defense takes time, especially with a young team. As Huggins has pointed out all season, high-scoring stars are not normally pushed to play defense. A high school doesn’t want the offensive hero to get in foul trouble, so he tries to pick someone who is easy to guard, rather than going one-on-one with the opponent’s top player.
Now, though, there are no players who are easy to guard. You are tested every game and every mistake becomes critical, especially down the stretch.
That is why holding William & Mary to just 25 percent shooting was so important on the cusp of entering league play and may have changed around the season for the Mountaineers.
NOTES: WVU’s Nathan Adrian was named the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Week for his 16-point performance against William & Mary after breaking his nose. Adrian scored his 16 points in 15 minutes of play and had 14 of them in the second half of the game … WVU defensive lineman Will Clarke has accepted an invitation to play in the 89th East-West Shrine Game to be played at 4 p.m. Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla. The NFL network will carry the game.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel