It’s been a season of firsts for West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers.
For the first time since joining the Big 12, West Virginia finished the regular season in last place. For the first time since 2012, the Mountaineers have failed to win at least 13 games during the regular season. And most notably, Huggins elected to dismiss two veteran starters in the middle of the year, adding even more turmoil to an already frustrating campaign.
Over the past 37 years as a head basketball coach, Bob Huggins has endured through only three losing seasons. And from the outside looking in, it would appear that this year has been his worst.
During conference play, West Virginia’s losses came by an average of 14.7 points, including five losses of 20 points or more. Even more alarming for a program that prides itself in turning its opponent over, the Mountaineers ranked 319th in the nation in turnover ratio per game (-2.5) and only 135th in turnovers forced per contest (13.55).
Yet despite losing its “Press Virginia” identity, something is finally going right for West Virginia.
“When I said that we were dangerous, I meant it and we showed that tonight,” freshman guard Jordan McCabe stated after West Virginia’s win over Texas Tech, becoming the first 10-seed to knock off a two-seed or higher in Big 12 conference history. “We just showed a tremendous amount of resilience all the way through our team. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys right now.”
McCabe is also enjoying a season full of first-time experiences. After struggling with a short leash for most of the year, the freshman sensation has been afforded opportunities to play through his mistakes and full control of the Mountaineers’ offense. Over the past two games, McCabe has only converted on eight of his 28 field goal attempts, yet has logged a combined team-high 72 minutes. During that time, however, he’s averaged 12.5 points, five assists and 2.5 steals per game.
He’s not the only newcomer making a much-needed impact for West Virginia.
“Every game, somebody different steps up,” Huggins added during his postgame interview. “[Emmitt Matthews Jr.] stepped up today. [Jermaine Haley] stepped up. [Derek Culver] stepped up. It seems every game, a different guy steps up.”
Over two of the past three games, Matthews Jr. has set career highs in scoring, including a team-high 28 points against the Red Raiders. The Washington native also snagged eight rebounds and only turned the ball over twice in 33 minutes of play. Culver, who was snubbed as the Big 12 freshman of the year after averaging a double-double in conference play, only tallied six points on Thursday night, but added a team-best 13 boards. Haley also played a role in the Mountaineers win, scoring 11 points and converting on a three-point play after being fouled with less than a minute remaining in the game.
As it stands, Huggins’ starting lineup consists of four first-time players and junior forward Lamont West, who is averaging over 12 points per game during the conference tournament. And given West Virginia’s record and laundry list of reasons why they shouldn’t, the Mountaineers are evolving into a force to be reckoned with in Kansas City.
Like a team with nothing left to lose, West Virginia is indeed proving to be a dangerous team, seeking revenge for what its suffered through over the past five months.
Just don’t claim Huggins is playing with house money.
“We’re playing to get into the NCAA Tournament. This is our chance. Two down, two to go.”