MORGANTOWN – The philosophy Bob Huggins has carved out for his 2014-15 West Virginia University basketball team that goes into tonight’s 7 p.m. game at the Coliseum against LSU is a huge departure from what he’s had since he’s been back at his alma mater, but has its roots deep in his storied history as a coach.
Huggins laid the philosophy out on Tuesday afternoon, a philosophy this team has ridden to a 7-0 start and a No. 16/17 national ranking.
“Our whole thing is hopefully we have 12 better guys than you have,” he said.
Most basketball teams rally around either one superstar or try to put together a starting five that can carry them through 30 to 35 minutes on the floor, outplaying whatever the opposition can throw at it.
Huggins, however, has settled on running full-court pressure from the opening tip to the final buzzer, running players in and out of the game, quick and athletic players for the most part, relying more on defense than offense, more on wearing out a team not used to playing that way.
The question that was put to him was whether it was more difficult to find 12 players capable of playing at this level than to find five that fit into a solid starting lineup.
“Easier,” Huggins proclaimed.
The math may not make it seem that way, but Huggins, when he went to Cincinnati, saw that his situation dictated going for depth rather than a powerful starting lineup that could be hurt by foul trouble, injury or simply wearing down.
“When I first went to Cincinnati I looked around the country and I knew I couldn’t get the same kind of players Denny Crum had at Louisville and John Thompson was getting at Georgetown,” Huggins explained.
“That being said, can we get into their bench? Can we play more people effectively than they can?”
This was what Huggins did in 1992, a season his team went 29-5 and reached the Final Four.
“I remember in the NCAA Tournament we’re playing Delaware and Anthony Buford (one of Huggins’ players) runs by the bench and yells at me ‘Don’t choke,’” Huggins said. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You would have subbed by now.’
“You knew right then they had all bought into it. They’d play as hard as they could play, get tired, take a break and the other guys would come in and play as hard as they could play,” Huggins continued.
To reach the Final Four, Huggins beat a strong Memphis State team 88-57 in Kansas City, Cincinnati attaining a spot in the Final Four for the first time in 30 years, reaching back into the Oscar Robertson era.
So, it’s little wonder that this is a formula that Huggins believes in.
“I think the feedback we’ve gotten – and I understand the competition is getting ready to get a whole lot better – is that we have worn people down,” Huggins noted.
And, they are getting even deeper as junior transfer Billy Dee Williams has been cleared to play, recovered from a broken orbital bone suffered during a practice, and center Brandon Watkins has partial clearance after a long illness during in which he lost 27 pounds.
Interestingly, Huggins almost backed into this team for he had the defections of guards Eron Harris and Terry Henderson who did not fit this system of play, allowing him to bring in extra players capable of playing 40 minutes of furious defense.
Huggins’ roster, while still heavy with his own recruits, does have a taste of the way he built that 1992 team, a team that had only two recruits to go with 11 transfers, eight of them from junior colleges. Huggins’ roster this year has six transfers, three of them in the starting lineup.
The Mountaineers already have passed a major test this year, upsetting defending national champion Connecticut, then ranked No. 17, a team that took pride in its ball handling but was flummoxed by WVU’s constant pressure.
LSU, which brings a 5-2 record into the Coliseum, is a different type of team than UConn, one who will have to match wills with WVU for the Bayou Tigers are a big team, standing 6-10, 6-8 and 6-10 across the front.
Huggins had thought that Massachusetts, which lost to LSU, 82-50, on Tuesday night, would offer stiff competition and do a lot of pressing, but they didn’t press as much as he thought they would.
“LSU did have 19 turnovers but the game got out of hand early and you take a few more chances when they are way ahead,” Huggins said.
Huggins will not be so kind as to back off in his press which has Jonathan Holton starting things at the point but which has been tremendously effective in turning the ball over, forcing 162 turnovers in seven games.
The result of that is that WVU is taking 20 more shots a game than its opposition, many of them easy shots off steals that have them holding a scoring margin of 19.6 points a game.
Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Juwan Staten is leading the offense with 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game while Holton averages 12.9 and 8.0 rebounds, sophomore Devin Williams scoring 11 points a game with 8.4 rebounds.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.