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Bob Huggins Orchestrated One of the Best Turnarounds in College Basketball

Cody Nespor

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The 2018-19 West Virginia basketball team was not good, in basically any respect.

West Virginia did lead the country in offensive rebounds (525) but that is only because the players missed so many shots to begin with (41.3 shooting percentage, last in Big 12, 316th in the nation).

The team was riddled with drama and poor play, but maybe the worst aspect of last season’s Mountaineers was that they did not play defense. They did not even really try to play defense.

WVU was dead-last in the Big 12 last season in most defensive categories. The team allowed a league-worst 77.2 points per game, the next closest team was Oklahoma State at 71.5. The Mountaineers also allowed opponents to shoot 45.8% from the floor (last in the Big 12, 293rd in the nation) and 36.1% from three (last in the Big 12, 288th in the nation).

Those numbers would be bad for any college basketball team, let alone a team in a major conference, let alone a team coached by the notoriously tough Bob Huggins. To make it even worse, this was a team that followed up the “Press Virginia” teams who went to four-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including three Sweet 16s. This was also the first year without back-to-back national defensive player of the year award winner Jevon Carter.

So the 2018-19 Mountaineers couldn’t shoot and couldn’t defend and to top it off, more than half the team would not return in next year (one declared for the NBA draft, two were dismissed and five transferred).

Entering the 2019-20 season Huggins returned seven players, four of whom just finished playing their true freshmen seasons, from one of the worst-performing teams he had ever coached and yet somehow he made it work.

To start, Huggins brought in a trio of highly-touted recruits. Kennedy Catholic High School had just produced a star big man in Sagaba Konate for WVU so Huggins went back to the well and picked up McDonald’s All-American Oscar Tshiebwe, the No. 28 ranked recruit in the 2019 class.

There was also Cincinnati native Miles McBride, who, if not for a broken leg late in his high school career, would have been a much higher-rated recruit and may have even gone to Ohio State to play quarterback. Finally, there was in-state recruit Jalen Bridges, who Huggins convinced to come to WVU and redshirt instead of taking a post-graduate year. Throw in Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in Spencer Macke as a walk-on and the Mountaineers had a pretty good incoming class.

With high school recruiting taken care of, Huggins turned to transfers, picking up JUCO sharpshooters Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil and big man Gabe Osabuohien, who had been misused at Arkansas.

So now Huggins had all his pieces, he just needed to make them fit together.

First, keep what actually worked last season. Then-freshmen Jordan McCabe and Emmitt Matthews came on strong at the end of the 2018-19 season when injuries and dismissals had shortened the rotation. McCabe would be the team’s starting point guard and Matthews would be the primary wing player.

There was also Derek Culver. After missing the first 15 games of 2018-19 with a team suspension, Culver returned to lead the Big 12 in rebounding in conference play. He was the Mountaineers’ emerging star, but with another big man in Tshiebwe joining the starting five, he would not be able to spend as much time under the basket as he did as a freshman.

Finally, second-year transfer Jermain Haley is the definition of a matchup nightmare for perimeter players. At 6-foot-7 he outsizes virtually every other guard he will face and is quick enough to not let smaller players easily get around him.

With the starting five set, the next question was the bench. Chase Harler was pretty much the only four-year player on the team. Huggins repeatedly called him the team’s best on-ball defender and a coach on the floor. Sherman, McNeil and McBride could come off the bench and score and Brandon Knapper and Logan Routt could provide depth. Then there was Osabuohien.

Because he was dismissed from Arkansas, Osabuohien was not immediately granted a waiver to play by the NCAA. He missed the first three games of the season waiting on his waiver and did not play well in his first few games as a Mountaineer. Osabuohien’s two years at Arkansas were not great. As a sophomore, he shot 32.8% from the floor and 20% on 30 three-point attempts, averaging 3.1 points. Scoring was not his strength, defense was, however.

Osabuohien had a 3.4 steal percentage and 0.9 defensive win shares (DWS) in 2018-19 according to sports-reference.com. Not bad for someone who only played 15 minutes a game. After a few games in gold and blue, Osabuohien started to settle into his role as a defensive stopper off the bench. He was instrumental in WVU’s upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State, shutting down Kaleb Wesson, the Buckeye’s leading scorer.

Somehow, someway Huggins took a team that went 15-21 and lost half its players in 2018-19 and turned it into a team that went 21-10, pulled off a pair of top-five upsets and was a sure lock for the NCAA Tournament in 2019-20.

This season’s Mountaineers still didn’t shoot well (42.2 shooting percentage, seventh in Big 12) but the biggest jump came in the team’s defense. West Virginia went from one of the worst defensive teams in the country to one of the absolute best in just one season.

The 2019-20 Mountaineers finished third in the Big 12 in scoring defense (62.4 points), second in opponent field goal percentage (39.1) and first in opponent three-point percentage (28.8%). Their national ranks were 16th in opponent field goal percentage and 12th in opponent three-point percentage.

Six players had DWS over 1.0, after no player had a DWS greater than 0.8 in 2018-19. Culver and Tshiebwe led the way with 2.1 and 2.0, respectively, while Haley (1.6), McBride (1.5) and Osabuohien (1.4) all also posted high individual marks.

That defense propelled the team as high as No. 12 in the AP Top-25 Poll, twice, powered upsets over then-ranked No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Baylor and helped the team finish the season ranked No. 24 in the nation.

Before the season’s premature end, the Mountaineers had positioned themselves well for a tough Big 12 Tournament bracket and were going to be a nightmare matchup for anyone in the national tournament. All after one of the worst seasons in Bob Huggins’s coaching career.

There’s a reason Bob Huggins is regarded as one of the premier coaches in college basketball.

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Cody is currently a second-year graduate student at West Virginia University studying journalism. His graduate research focuses on the effects newspaper closures have on local communities. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2018 with a degree in digital media production. He was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

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