It is chic, these days with West Virginia University cutting a bold path toward the upper echelons of college basketball, to disavow all ties to John Beilein, the former coach who pioneered the trail that leads from Morgantown to Ann Arbor, Mich.
His departure made it possible for Bob Huggins, a West Virginia basketball hero of another era and coach who had crossed one too many bridges in Cincinnati before burning it behind him, to come home.
Huggins was the anti-Beilein, his style be rough and rugged, his persona being quiet, yet deceivingly tough. If Beilein scored his baskets by sneaking in the back door, Huggins would score them by smashing down the front door.
Beilein wanted lithe, lean players; Huggins wanted muscular, athletic players.
Beilein was an architect who built houses; Huggins a tornado which tore them down.
Huggins has won over the Mountaineer nation, creating a product and winning a Big East Tournament championship, which was one step beyond where Beilein could take the team.
Huggins took Joe Alexander and turned him into a legend his first year, sending him off to the NBA, something no West Virginia player had done since they stopped shooting set shots in the league. Then he molded Da’Sean Butler into an All-America player.
He took Beilein’s players and made them bigger than life, stronger than strong. One could only wonder what Huggins would have done with Kevin Pittsnogle, but we suspect he might be shooting baskets in New York, not New Mexico these days.
Certainly, between Alexander and Butler and Wellington Smith and Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman, there is a Beilein influence on this team that has gained a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and that opens play against Morgan State in Buffalo on Friday.
These were good kids, smart kids, kids who obviously had talent and who could perform in a different system with different assignments as effectively, or more so, than they did for Beilein.
Oh, there was one more legacy from the Beilein era, one that may have had as much an influence on the success of the Mountaineers as even Butler has had in his dream season.
That would be the 1-3-1 zone defense that Beilein loved to feature. It is a strange zone, something different than what teams mostly see. Huggins likes a switching, man-to-man defense as his main weapon, but he realized as the season went on that he needed something else to change tempo, to give offenses something to think about.
Huggins has said he knew nothing about the 1-3-1 and that holdover Beilein players, particularly Mazzulla, who is on track to become a wonderful coach, explained the principles of it to him and helped him install it, but that wasn’t exactly the truth.
To begin with, a coach of Huggins intellect — and he did graduate WVU magna cum laude — wants to know all he can about basketball. Having to attack the 1-3-1 when it was played against him meant that he had to understand the mechanisms, so he had studied it.
Not only that, but on Tuesday before leaving for Buffalo, he admitted he used it quite a bit while coach at Akron early in his career.
“That was the defense we used to change the game,” Huggins said.
At Cincinnati, when he went zone, he was more into a 1-1-3 zone, and says he played it a lot. But this team had a problem when he tried to install it.
“It didn’t work,” he said, “but a lot of guys had familiarity with the 1-3-1.”
What’s more, he had a strangely long and athletic team, one in which he could put 6-9 Devin Ebanks out on the point and disrupt the offense.
“But it’s not just Ebanks. John Flowers doesn’t look it, but he’s actually longer than Ebanks. And Da’Sean (Butler) and Wells (Wellington Smith) are long,” Huggins said.
And Mazzulla is a horse on the back line.
Mostly Huggins is going to the 1-3-1 late in games, although he did try it against Notre Dame in the first half in the Big East Tournament, changing the flow of the game, throwing the offense of the opponent having to radically change.
It has been crucial in some games to turning a small deficit into a lead with a spurt built on either steals or missed shots.
“I’m still trying to figure out a way to rebound better out of it,” Huggins said. “We’re doing different things with Devin to try and help there.”
The players enjoy using the throwback defense to their Beilein days.
“It’s a great thing to go to. It really surprises the other team,” Smith said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.