Huggins goes against type

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The prototypical Bob Huggins player is the opposite of the group he coaches at West Virginia.

Taking the form of players such as Kansas State super freshmen Michael Beasley and Bill Walker -- his two high-profile recruits in his brief tenure as Wildcats coach -- Huggins’ type typically excels in one-on-one situations.

His offenses strive to set up isolation opportunities, where his players can use their quickness to break opponents down off dribble penetration.


His defenses thrive using intense man-to-man pressure, his athletes using their long wingspans to wreak havoc on the ball and in passing lanes.

“Knowing Bob, it starts with defense,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Huggins, a friend whose Mountaineers defeated the Blue Devils on Saturday in a second-round NCAA tournament game. “His teams play good defense and they rebound well. I think he’s one of the best coaches.”

Just don’t expect the West Virginia team that will meet Xavier on Thursday in a regional semifinal in Phoenix to look much like the prototype.

Upon taking the job at his alma mater last spring, Huggins inherited a group with few of the usual physical characteristics. Instead, when former coach John Beilein bolted for Michigan, he left behind a group of spot-up shooters with limited athleticism who were accustomed to a motion offense and a brand of 1-3-1 zone defense.

Beilein’s team could play -- the Mountaineers won the NIT last season -- but point guard Darris Nichols was the only player in the rotation with NCAA tournament experience before this season.

“We don’t have a post guy and we don’t have a whole lot of people who can break you down off the dribble, so we rely on making jump shots,” Huggins said. “We can’t run screen and rolls, because we don’t have those kind of players. We can’t throw it down on the block, because our 7-footer is more of a three-point shooter than he is a post player.

“We are what we are. You try to take what you have and you try to adjust and try to put them in positions where they can be successful.”

Yet somehow, in his first season in Morgantown, Huggins has these seemingly misfit Mountaineers (26-10) in the Sweet 16.

“I think it shows what a great coach he is,” West Virginia guard Alex Ruoff said. “It also shows the kind of guys we have on this team that are willing to listen and want to buy into the system, even though we’re not his type of players.

“It’s been hard. The transition period when he first got here, in those workouts, it was tough. It was defense that we had never even tried to play. We had individual drills of 50 minutes of nothing but guarding the ball one on one. But it’s paid off.”

Huggins, who ranks seventh in victories among active coaches, almost returned home once before, when the West Virginia job opened in 2002. But Huggins -- often criticized for his lack of loyalty to Kansas State a year ago -- remained as coach at Cincinnati, saying he couldn’t bear to leave his players.

He began his Division I coaching career in 1984 at Akron before moving to Cincinnati in 1989 and remains the winningest coach in victories and winning percentage in Cincinnati history. The Bearcats reached the Final Four once and the Elite Eight three times in his tenure, qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 14 consecutive seasons.

But those accomplishments were marred in later years at Cincinnati by underperforming academics -- his teams graduated on average about 30% of its players -- as well as run-ins with the law. His program was put on NCAA probation in 1998 for a lack of institutional control.

Finally, the tipping point came when Huggins was arrested for drunk driving in 2004. A year later, Cincinnati officials said Huggins didn’t fit with plans to upgrade the university’s academic reputation and bought out his contract in exchange for his resignation.

After spending a year away from the game, Huggins returned to coaching last season at Kansas State and produced immediate dividends for the Wildcats. Season ticket sales more than doubled, and the previously cellar-dweller Wildcats won 23 games and reached the second round of the NIT. Furthermore, his recruiting class -- including Beasley and Walker -- was ranked by most services as best in the country.

But when Beilein left for Michigan, Huggins couldn’t turn down his alma mater a second time.

As with Kansas State, the results were immediate. In West Virginia’s last NCAA tournament game before this year -- a 74-71 loss to Texas in a 2006 regional semifinal -- the Mountaineers were out-rebounded, 43-15, by the Longhorns.

Saturday against Duke, the tables were turned, with seventh-seeded West Virginia crushing second-seeded Duke on the boards, 47-27, on its way to a 73-67 victory -- Duke’s second-lowest scoring output of the season.

“He has a unique way of getting you to do certain things you’re not used to doing,” forward Da’Sean Butler said of Huggins. “We practice it every day continuously. Getting rebounds is just instilled in us now.”

Huggins credits the turnaround to the attitude of his players.

“We have great kids,” Huggins said. “I think that’s it. To be able to come in and make the changes that we made, you have to have good guys to do that. And they’ve done it very well. They’ve embraced it, actually.”

The players aren’t the only ones making adjustments. Huggins has modified his preferred isolation system to include elements of Beilein’s motion offense, taking advantage of the intelligence and shooting ability of this season’s team.

“You’ve got to give Coach Huggins the credit,” forward Joe Alexander said. “He came here and didn’t completely overthrow everything and completely change everything. He mixed his stuff with our old stuff.

“He doesn’t have a big ego. He just wants to win. He doesn’t care if he runs plays from John Beilein’s era. He just wants to use what works.”

Krzyzewski credited Huggins’ decision to insert a three-guard lineup -- often a staple of Beilein’s teams -- as the difference in the Duke outcome. The Blue Devils lacked the lateral quickness to deny dribble penetration, and couldn’t keep reserve guard Joe Mazzulla from the rim.

“The MVP of the game,” Krzyzewski said of Mazzulla.

But Huggins did more than merely take over a team with players not suited for his system. He took a leading role in an athletic program reeling from the loss of alum and football coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan.

“We are pleased that our success is continuing,” Athletic Director Ed Pastilong said. “It makes it even nicer when you have an alum like Bobby Huggins leading your team. Bobby was raised less than one mile from the Coliseum and his return has the entire state excited.”