I would never presume to tell Bob Huggins, he of 847 career wins and 42 total years in the industry, how to coach a basketball team. Similarly, I would never be able to drum up enough moxie to tell Huggy Bear how he should go about re-tooling a roster that has generated a lowly 10 wins this season and has just dismissed two of its most experienced players.
Yet, facts are facts and re-tooling is perhaps only the starting point for Huggins and the Mountaineers.
West Virginia’s season graduated from uniformly bad to devastating with the recent announcement of the dismissal of both Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris. Ahmad, the lone senior on the roster, carries the mantle of perhaps the most disappointing player to feature in Morgantown in this or (arguably) any generation. Harris was a sometimes-solid contributor who suffered from recurring questionable on-court antics. Both players, who spent several seasons on the court with West Virginia legend Jevon Carter and assisted in multiple NCAA tournament runs, could and should have led from the front. Simply put, they should have been more. They weren’t and now their departure from the program stands as a watershed moment in a season that no one could have seen coming.
It’s a broken season. Bob Huggins is a mentor, a basketball architect, a program patriarch and now, in light of this season’s disastrous turn, he’s also a triage boss. In assessing the severity of the damage done to this program, Huggins and his staff will have to consider both the short and long term approach to reviving Press Virginia and the risk/reward associated with each.
First, the short term:
Locker room cancers don’t exist on great teams, yet they thrive within a dysfunctional and lacking culture. Those you have to get rid of, so credit to Huggins for making the tough call. It’s as unfortunate a scenario that exists anywhere in collegiate sports and all any of us can do is wish Ahmad and Harris the best in their future endeavors. However, it’s clear that West Virginia lacked a legitimate leader in the clubhouse and that usually indicates a power vacuum among the program veterans. With Ahmad and Harris no longer in the picture, Huggins can now conduct an open casting call for team leadership. Young guys like Jordan McCabe, Emmitt Matthews and Derek Culver will have to grow up fast and decide now that they’ll be the nucleus of a better, stronger team next year. Whatever bad habits they might have gleaned from Ahmad and Harris are to be set aside immediately, without exception.
Equally as important, Beetle Bolden and star rim-protector Sagaba Konate will need to get healthy and, in Konate’s case, make it clear that he’s 100% bought in. Konate’s status has been called into question several times this season and it’s unclear how things will continue to unfold as he’ll likely remain on the bench while West Virginia plays out the home stretch of its schedule. If he’s fully healthy and fully invested in returning next season, he, Culver and incoming 5-star Oscar Tshiebwe could provide the Mountaineers with the nation’s premier front court.
Bob Huggins and his guys won’t be playing come March, so now is a perfect opportunity for he and Konate to sit down and talk brass tacks. With Konate on board, there will be proven star power in the fold to help galvanize the younger players who are likely feeling a bit snake-bitten at present.
Now, I apologize in advance for using a Dana Holgorsen recruiting comparison (because it shouldn’t make sense), but prior to last year, the erstwhile head football coach expounded on the process he underwent to re-recruit program stars like Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings. All three postponed their respective professional journeys to return to Morgantown in 2018 and lead one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. In the case of Huggins, a similar approach can and should be applied. Konate is the most obvious name on any shortlist of players that need to be convinced to stay and reignite the West Virginia hardwood machine.
Make no mistake, the type of season West Virginia is having can cast doubt far and wide and ensnare any number of players in its grasp along the way. Huggins and his staff will want to limit attrition and, ideally, avoid it altogether.
It is likely, though, that with Ahmad and Harris’ scholarships now up for grabs, fringe players like Logan Routt and Chase Harler exit the program and seek playing time elsewhere. Lamont West and Jermaine Haley are two older scholarship players that have proven valuable and add needed depth. Similarly, younger scholarship players like Brandon Knapper, McCabe, Matthews and Trey Doomes, are all building blocks that have great potential. It’s on Huggins to reiterate to each of them that West Virginia’s aim is to compete for a national title and that doesn’t happen without the combined efforts of everyone involved.
Keep this group together and next year is already looking like an improvement.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the available scholarships that could be filled via transfer, aka college free agency. That’s a market that is peaking at the moment and Huggs could very easily find a plug-and-play solution from elsewhere in division-I to satisfy some immediate needs.
Lastly, throw out Press Virginia if need be. Huggins last reinvented West Virginia nearly half a decade ago when he sought a better method to create more offensive touches for the long, aggressive athletes on his roster. Out of his lab sprang a defensive monster that suffocated opposing offenses to the point of emotional meltdown and became a program trademark. We have seen, clearly, that Press Virginia went out the door along with Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles and if and when it returns is anyone’s guess.
Huggins has proven himself to be amenable to complete reinvention before and it may just be necessary yet again. If that’s the route he decides on, it will signal another drastic shift in the Bob Huggins era and prove that an old bear is still capable of new tricks.
Long term, the fix is more complicated.
Good or bad, everything revolves around Bob Huggins and the culture he’s instilled at West Virginia. Now 65, Huggins last signed a contract extension in 2017 that runs through the end of the 2021-2022 season. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee Huggins would want to continue to endure the grind of power 5 basketball. Assuming that the reins to the program are in new hands after 2022, Bob Huggins has a three year window to successfully rewire a fractured roster and get West Virginia back to striking distance of Big 12 titan Kansas.
Again, this is assuming that Huggins remains on through the end of his current deal. As a shoo-in hall-of-famer, what’s stopping Huggins from waking up tomorrow and decided he’s had enough? At that point, West Virginia is on the hook for to continue paying him (albeit at a reduced rate) wherein Huggs would take on an emeritus role at the university and that would be it. Golf outings, fundraisers and cocktail circles ad infinitum.
Now, I know I’m painting a grim picture. But it’s important to consider the extent to which things in their current state are salvageable and if Huggins is up for yet another build-from-scratch undertaking. Do the Mountaineers need to simply reassemble existing components to be back in the Big 12 hunt next season or is this a layered, multi-faceted job that will require several more recruiting classes and a total re-write of the on-court playbook?
The gap between the former and the latter is vast and, unfortunately, no one outside of Bob Huggins, his staff and perhaps Shane Lyons knows the truth of it all.
All I know, from an outsider looking in, is that this is a critical juncture for Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The decisions that will be made in the coming months will likely leave an indelible mark on his coaching legacy and profoundly impact the momentum of West Virginia basketball. No one is more capable of righting the ship than the big man on the stool. No one in college basketball is surly or intractable enough to will his team back to national relevancy than the bear himself.
Perhaps this is all a temporary collapse leading to a glorious bloom or perhaps it’s the prelude to a slow burn and a protracted end. Regardless of which, Bob Huggins needs to lift the hood and get down to business.