MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Bob Huggins has always taken a simplistic approach to teaching defense.
That philosophy: Either you could stay between your guy and the basket or you couldn’t.
“I used to have a rule that if you got beat and you weren’t pissed off, you went and ran for the rest of practice. If it was a game, you didn’t play anymore,” he said. “I’m getting old, I guess.”
His comments followed West Virginia’s 75-53 loss against Texas on Saturday night. With the way the Mountaineers (10-14, 2-9 Big 12) are playing defense these days, Huggins would have a lot more guys sitting on the bench than playing if he stuck to the letter of that rule.
“We don’t play with a lot of intensity and it doesn’t seem to bother us,” Huggins said.
West Virginia players describe the setbacks with a hint more subtlety to it. Otherwise finger pointing and the blame game would have torn apart this team long ago.
“We’ve really tried everything on defense and we’re struggling right now,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said about a team that is last in the Big 12 in every relevant defensive category except for team blocked shots, team steals and rebounds. “We’re still searching for our identity. I think once we figure out what we need to do on defense, I think we can win some more games. It’s definitely on the defensive end.”
And this is the point of the story where Huggins tells the story of mutliple defensive adjustments.
Once a coach who built his reputation on man-to-man defense, his style morphed into full-court pressure that spawned “Press Virginia” T-shirts and hats, But the Mountaineers quickly became a team without a defense to lean on from the start of this season.
By the time they reached the Myrtle Beach Invitational in November and Atlantic 10 and Conference USA teams were dissecting the press, something had to change.
Then the Mountaineers lost shot-blocker Sagaba Konate to a knee injury a month later and their most experienced guard, Beetle Bolden, also went down to an ankle injury.
“It’s frustrating, but we had the defensive player of the year last year in JC [Jevon Carter] and we had Sags back there,” West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad said. “Losing those guys was a big blow. We had Sags for a little bit this season, but his knee gave him problems. We had the kind of problems that we just couldn’t control.”
In that line of thinking came a conglomerate of defensive attempts to cover weaknesses or simply to try something new. It was a full-court man-to-man for a while, that morphed into a 1-3-1, a 2-3 and then into a 3-2 zone that created sparks that never seemed to turn into a full-blown flame.
“That was probably wrong looking back on it,” Huggins said. “It probably gave them a crutch.”
Against Texas, the Mountaineers tried using a pack-line defense much like Virginia has deployed as its staple under coach Tony Bennett. Once Texas made adjustments in the second half, it shot 53.1 percent and recorded seven dunks as part of its 17 second-half baskets.
The crutch, as Huggins put it, has now become a sort of excuse in finding some mythical alignment that will magically work with a roster that is without its top defensive player in Konate and without its most experienced guard in Bolden.
Meanwhile, players keep talking about getting back to practice and the film room, like there is some unused formula there waiting for them to be utilized before their road game at No. 13 Kansas on Saturday.
“We just have to keep playing and keep fighting,” Ahmad said. “You just have to keep thinking about the next play. That’s what I tell the guys. We think we can win that ga