MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Bob Huggins endorses Kevin Mackey as “the master” of full-court pressure and frequently discusses nuances for generating new, trickier nightmares for dribblers. They shared a phone call just Monday, in fact.
Yet last March, before facing Maryland in the NCAA round of 32, Huggins and his top West Virginia defensive assistant Larry Harrison went looking for answers somewhere else: VCU’s Shaka Smart.
While Huggins mentioned the conversation with Smart on Tuesday—the day before WVU hosts Smart’s new program, Texas—Harrison expounded on Smart’s assistance and how it ultimately helped the Mountaineers advance to the Sweet 16.
To recount: Maryland’s four-guard lineup relied on 6-foot-5 inbounder Dez Wells to reclaim the ball and beat pressure in the backcourt. And that was concerning, because as Harrison recalled:
“We really hadn’t played anyone who had that type of press-breaker. So Shaka gave us some insight on how they would guard it—whether we should stay with the inbounder or go trap right away.”
As the Mountaineers hounded and harassed their way to a 69-59 win, Maryland committed 23 turnovers, eight by Wells.
“The advice Shaka gave us, we used,” Harrison said. “So it was very helpful.”
Smart requires some assistance of his own this season at Texas (11-6, 3-2), where the roster isn’t built to press. While seeking to ramp up the aggressive mentality of the Rick Barnes holdovers, the new coach won’t realize a complete transformation until new recruits arrive.
So don’t anticipate mirror images of teams playing at breakneck pace when the Longhorns go upset-hunting at the WVU Coliseum. As the Mountaineers lead the Big 12 in forced turnovers (20.7 per game), Texas ranks near the bottom of the conference (13.2).
“Some of the teams we had at VCU maybe were more similar to West Virginia than we are right now,” Smart said. “We’re a long, long way from where we want to be in terms of effecting people with the full-court press.”
When he spies the No. 6 Mountaineers, Smart delights in the style of play where “there’s a pervasive mindset of going after people.” He appreciates how uncomfortable it makes big men who aren’t accustomed to handling the ball, how it leads to atypical shot selection, how opposing coaches resort to practice gimmicks as a means of preparation.
Until last season, Smart most enjoyed watching Mike Anderson’s teams at UAB and Arkansas. Now it’s West Virginia atop his must-see list.
“From what I’ve seen West Virginia is by far the best pressing team in the country,” he said. “Over the last couple years, I don’t think it’s even been close.”