The cool thing about non-bluebood programs like West Virginia is that their best teams achieve a godlike status among fans. Their best teams are good enough to be quite good, but the program isn’t so elite that they routinely produce national title contenders.
For the Mountaineers, the 21st century gold standard was the Final Four team of 2009-10. In Huggins’ third year coaching in Morgantown, a senior swing player named Da’Sean Butler averaged a 17/6/3 stat line, hit six game-winners and led West Virginia past a Kentucky team with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and into the Final Four.
The story of West Virginia’s first Final Four since the Jerry West days doesn’t have a happy ending. Butler tore his ACL in a national semifinal against Duke, and the Blue Devils went on to win the national championship. Regardless, that 2010 team is beloved among fans. Every team since has been trying to recapture the magic of that year, when West Virginia won 30 games, the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional.
In Morgantown, that team’s success is the target, and Butler enjoys a mythologized post-graduate status.
Finally, the Mountaineers have a team worthy of being mentioned in the same breath of that Final Four squad. I’ll go ahead and say it, if no one else will.
In his 11th season in Morgantown, Bob Huggins has constructed his best-ever team, and they’re as big a threat as anyone to win the national championship this season.
Let’s start with why this group is better than every West Virginia team since 2010. For a decade now, Huggins uses a simple formula when constructing these WVU teams — recruit guys that play defense and rebound the ball over guys who can score. Huggins cares more about creating extra possessions than a high shooting percentage. Since bad shooting nights are inevitable, he feels it’s a more sustainable way to win games.
This line of thinking is where the Press Virginia strategy emerged from in 2014. When a couple of recruiting classes didn’t yield the results Huggins hoped for, he adopted a high-intensity pressure system to further compensate for his team’s poor shooting trend. In addition to his teams’ trademark offensive rebounding, the pressure defense could result in even more possessions for West Virginia. These are the WVU teams that college basketball has seen over the past three years; the Mountaineers were selling out in their press in order to compensate for their offensive mediocrity in the half court.
A funny thing seems to have happened during this 2018 season, though. Huggins found some sort of alchemical secret, the perfect blend of scoring and defense. WVU presses enough to maintain astronomical defensive numbers, but it's much more comfortable running half-court sets this season. Jevon Carter is an All-American candidate and a 3-time All-Conference defensive selection; together, he and Daxter Miles (you might remember him from this) form one of the most dangerous duos in Division 1 basketball. They’ve played 116 games together, which is part of the reason why they’re the most experienced backcourt of any Power-5 team.
In previous seasons, West Virginia’s Achilles Heel has been when an already-bad shooting team has an even worse shooting night. We’re talking shooting percentages in the low 20s. We’re talking about a team that could get to the free throw line 20 times, but only shoot 45 percent once it got there. We’re talking about automatic losses against teams that play zone defense.
This year’s team appears to have the answers to those problems. Unlike previous iterations, this team finds ways to win close games when it isn’t playing very well. (see: Tuesday night’s game against Baylor.) It shoots over 74 percent from the stripe, which is the program's best mark in any season under Huggins. Perhaps most importantly, Carter doesn’t have to score to be the most effective players on the court — he was 1-of-7 from the field at Kansas State last week, but still posted eight rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and a block — and Allen has been a revelation off the bench for the past few weeks.
Teddy Allen scores 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting in 24 minutes, No. 6 WVU beats No. 7 Oklahoma 89-76. https://t.co/aO2kvDoKxi
— Mike Casazza (@mikecasazza) January 7, 2018
Is this team better than the 2010 squad? Because of the defense and the wide range of places where the points can come from, I believe they are. I’m not the only one, either.
Difference between this team and the final four team is we had 5 people that can score and step up they have 6
— Truck Bryant (@Truckbryant25) January 9, 2018
That’s Darryl “Truck” Bryant, who started at both guard positions for that beloved 2010 team. Bryant counts six players who can serve as stable sources of offense for this current team, and so do I — Carter, Miles, Allen, Konate, Bolden and forward Esa Ahmad, the second-leading scorer from last year’s team. Ahmad was sat down by the NCAA for the first half of the season for publicly undisclosed reasons, but he’ll return to the lineup for this Saturday’s key matchup in Lubbock against No. 8 Texas Tech.
On that 2010 team, Bryant counts five guys, but I only count four. Everyone will remember Butler; there was also double-double machine Kevin Jones, NBA pick Devin Ebanks and Bryant himself. Bryant’s fifth may have been Wellington Smith, but Smith (6.6 ppg) was always a better off-ball player than he was a scorer.
Huggs’ 2010 team was an elite rebounding team that had incredible length and half court defensive prowess. But a quick peak at KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings puts the 2010 team ranked at 21st nationally, allowing 91.7 points per 100 possessions. This year's team currently ranks ninth, at 90.8.
Past the lanky defense, the factor that most fans will likely point to the presence of a killer like Butler.
Butler is an all-timer for the Mountaineers, but statistically speaking, Carter is right there with him. Remember Butler’s 17/6/3 stat line I mentioned earlier? Well, 16 games in, Carter is putting up a 16 / 5.5 / 6.8 line. Their shooting percentages are both a hair over 41 percent. Add in Carter’s signature defense — his 58 steals (3.6 spg) lead the NCAA this season — and Carter is, at the very least, Butler’s equal, albeit from a different position on the floor. (Butler, by the way, averaged exactly 1.0 steal per game during his senior season and played good-not-great defense.)
In 2010, West Virginia very well could have missed out on of one its best-ever chances to win a national championship. However, if the Mountaineers can stay healthy this season, they’ll have just as good a chance to win one this year. With Carter’s defensive dominance, Allen’s emergence and Ahmad’s return, it has all the pieces to seize a Big 12 championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
From there, for what could be Huggins’ best-ever team, the sky is the limit.