PHOENIX (AP)—The West Virginia Mountaineers are far different than most of Bob Huggins’ teams, except in one way.
Huggins inherited a team of sharpshooters recruited by John Beilein, who stressed an intricate offense, and transformed it into a squad that plays man-to-man defense and scraps for rebounds.
No one will confuse these Mountaineers with Huggins’ big, bad Cincinnati Bearcats. But West Virginia (26-10) has reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 16, where the seventh-seeded Mountaineers will face third-seeded Xavier (29-6) in the West Region on Thursday night.
“He’s completely flipped everything around, with rebounding, defense, intensity and goal-wise,” forward Joe Alexander said after the Mountaineers practiced at U.S. Airways Center on Wednesday. “The goals changed when he came, from day one. They went from making the NCAA tournament to winning the NCAA tournament.”
The 54-year-old Huggins returned to his alma mater after Beilein, who went 104-60 in five seasons in Morgantown, bolted for Michigan last year.
The players knew little about Huggins, a 1977 graduate of West Virginia, aside from the glowering figure they had seen stalking the sidelines on television.
Huggins has shown his players a softer side since arriving. But he also brought a commitment to defense that has paid off in the first two rounds of the tournament, when West Virginia limited 10th-seeded Arizona to 65 points and second-seeded Duke to 67.
“I think the defensive end took a lot of getting used to,” backup point guard Joe Mazzulla said. “Last year, we did two hours of offense and 10 minutes of defense (in practice). This year, we do two hours of defense and half-hour of offense.”
From the start, Huggins and his staff pushed the players into the weight room. He also brought a treadmill to practice, and players who mess up are asked to go for a spin.
“When I first heard that he was going to get one in the gym, I was like, ‘Man, that’s not going to happen,”’ backup forward Wellington Smith said. “When I first saw it, I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to be on there a lot.’ I’ve been on there a lot.”
“Not box out,” Smith said. “Let a guy go middle. Just being, maybe, soft.”
If there’s one thing Huggins can’t stand, it’s being soft. But while Huggins likes to instill discipline in his players, it has, at times, been missing from his personal and professional life.
His 16-year tenure at Cincinnati produced a trip to the 1992 Final Four and two other regional final appearances. It also included player arrests, NCAA probation and Huggins’ drunk driving arrest in 2004.
Huggins was forced out in 2005, but he wasn’t finished. He spent one season at Kansas State before taking the job at West Virginia. Huggins is 616-221 in 26 college seasons.
Reinventing himself as a coach wasn’t a big deal for a man who had survived a heart attack in the fall of 2002.
But then, Huggins said he didn’t really change after that seemingly life-altering event, although he had planned to at the time.
“Same thing you do New Year’s Eve,” Huggins said. “You said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and about the third of January you are back doing what you did before.
“I haven’t really changed all that much,” Huggins said. “I mean, I would like to sit here and tell you that I probably eat better, but look at me. That’s obviously not the case.”
The beefy Huggins paused while reporters laughed.
“Honestly, I don’t think about it very much, which is kind of hard,” Huggins said. “But I just believe with all my heart when God says it’s your time, it’s your time. You don’t get to debate that. He decided for whatever reason it wasn’t my time.”
Xavier coach Sean Miller, who has known Huggins for most of his life, said he’s not surprised that Huggins has returned with a passion.
“He is such a survivor,” Miller said. “He is so strong-willed. I don’t know if it surprised anybody that not only is he back as a coach, but better than ever.”
Arizona coach Kevin O’Neill, a longtime friend, called Huggins “probably the most underrated coach in the whole game. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Huggins’ blunt style makes for good copy but isn’t always endearing. He still bristles over the perception—some of it fueled by the media, he believes — that his Bearcats were a lawless bunch.
“I understand to make a good story, there’s got to be white hats and black hats, otherwise we never would have had a cowboy movie,” Huggins said. “That’s the way it is.”
To stress his point, Huggins recalled the 1992 Final Four.
“The reality is in 1992 we go to the Final Four with three bluebloods—it is Indiana, Duke and Michigan,” Huggins said. “And then here we come in with 10 transfers.
“Didn’t matter that they were the most articulate, the funniest, the best interview,” Huggins said. “They really were the highlight of the whole deal. It was a story. And I understand that, and I’m good with it. I’m 54 years old, shocked back to life three times, you know? I’m fine with it.”