MORGANTOWN — A year ago, West Virginia’s basketball team was like Groucho Marx without his mustache, Pete Rose without his head-first slide, Robin without Batman, and the Beatles without John Lennon.
The Mountaineers were a pressing team without a press. They lost their identity, their mantra, their engine.
While Bob Huggins says it will be back next year, what form “Press Virginia” will take is yet to be determined. Nonetheless, Huggins has created his team for next season with pressing in mind.
What went wrong last year?
Jevon Carter — the best defenseman ever at the school — was drafted into the NBA. Then Sagaba Konate, perhaps the best rim protector ever to grace the floor of the Coliseum, was injured and missed most of the season, leaving the basket vulnerable to press-breakers.
Two years ago: 301 steals, 611 turnovers forced, 192 blocked shots, and West Virginia gave up 69.6 points a game.
Last year: 223 steals (down 78 total steals, or down by 26%), 484 turnovers forced (down 127, or down by 21%), 126 blocked shots (down 66, or down by 34%), while giving up 77.4 points a game (about 7.8 points a game, or an increase of 11%).
On the other hand, the Mountaineers offense went from scoring 80.1 points a game to 73.8, down 7.3 points, and went from shooting 43.6% to 41.3% — probably because they couldn’t get the easy baskets that came out of the press.
Huggins had tinkered with his press throughout the time he used it, depending on what kind of personnel he had. Jonathan Holton, Nathan Adrian, John Flowers all gave him different ways he could use the press, and Carter — of course — was the key to it all because of Huggins’ theory.
“It’s the old adage,” Huggins said. “Cut the head off, the snake will die.”
As Huggins wasn’t necessarily referring to a way to deal with the elusive 15-foot python still loose in Sabraton, just what did he mean by that in reference to basketball?
“We tried to not let the primary ball handler have the ball much,” Huggins said. “If you think about it, what we did was end up with someone having the ball to start the offense with 20 seconds to go rather than with 30 seconds on the clock.”
That meant the Mountaineers hounded the point guard after he made baskets to try and keep sending the ball to that person, so he could bring it up the court against the press and get the offense in gear.
“That way they had to get the ball back to the point guard,” Huggins said. “Then he had to initiate the offense. What we were doing was making them play with a short shot clock. You won’t get the ball reversal that you get with the full clock.”
Last year, Huggins just didn’t have the personnel to do that. Especially with Konate on the bench injured.
This coming year, however, the coach believes he’s developed improved play for the press: Jermaine Haley, at 6-7, has finally figured out what he was doing on the floor and getting comfortable, and there’s an incoming rim a protector in five-star freshman recruit Oscar Tshiebwe. There’s also Derek Culver, who can dominate the backboards, and whose rebounding ability is such that WVU can afford to keep the pressure further away from the basket and the guards and wings won’t have to do as much on the boards.
What’s more, Emmitt Matthews is an improving defender who is taking pride in his work on the defensive end.
With a whole summer to work — including a trip to Spain — along with the regular preseason, watch for Huggins to reestablish the defensive dominance he is known for.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.