It's almost hard to remember now, but it wasn't so long ago that there were worries this season would go up in smoke given a brutal Big 12 schedule down the stretch.
Coming off three blowout losses in a stretch of four games, and facing the prospect of two games against Kansas, two games against a ranked Oklahoma State team, an away game at Baylor (which had thumped WVU in Morgantown), and a game against Texas (arguably the worst matchup in the Big 12 for West Virginia), some were legitimately wondering if the Mountaineers could win another game or two to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid.
It all seems laughable now, after a dramatic, emotional home win over Kansas, a reasonably thorough performance at Oklahoma State, and a wire-to-wire defeat of Texas. Those three RPI top-50 wins in a span of eight days secured West Virginia's spot in the NCAA Tournament. Heading into tonight's game at Kansas, WVU technically still has a chance to share the Big 12 Conference championship -- in a year in which the Big 12 is almost universally seen as the top conference in college basketball.
It is, in my mind, Huggins' best job in his eight seasons patrolling the WVU bench. Here is a quick breakdown, in descending order, of what I consider the coach's three best jobs in Morgantown:
2014-15: 22-7 overall, 10-6 Big 12
Regardless of what happens down the stretch, this season has already been a success beyond what anyone reasonably could have expected. The Mountaineers had been a .500 program the previous three years combined (49-49) and lost two of their three most prolific scoring threats from a season ago (Eron Harris and Terry Henderson) after both opted to transfer out.
It seemed like a recipe for another middling year. But Huggins has gotten the absolute maximum out of his roster, instilling a style of play that demands endless effort. The players have bought in completely, and the results are tangible: a comfortable place in the NCAA Tournament field, four RPI top-50 wins and nine wins over the top 100.
To me, though, the moment that put this season over the top for Huggins came in the Texas win. With the Longhorns getting easy looks on pretty much every possession in which they managed to avoid a turnover against WVU's full-court pressure, and with a once massive Mountaineer lead dwindling away rapidly, Huggins had his team back out of the press and instead play a morphing zone defense. It frustrated the Horns at precisely the right moment, giving West Virginia the foothold it needed to extend the lead once more.
The one thing WVU had lacked before that performance was a clear Plan B. It remains to be seen if the zone was just deployed because of the matchup problems Texas presented, or if it's going to be a more permanent part of the arsenal. But regardless, it shows this team is still able and willing to learn new things -- and that the coaches are comfortable utilizing them late in the season.
Huggins has used his personnel to near perfection this season. Only one player, Juwan Staten, averages more than 25 minutes per game. All told, 10 players are averaging 12+ minutes an outing. Managing that sort of roster isn't an easy task, but Huggs has pushed the right buttons on almost every occasion. If Staten and Gary Browne are healthy during the postseason, the Mountaineers will be capable of competing with just about anyone they face.
The fact that we're taking about chances for a Big 12 title and an NCAA tournament run is a testament to what Huggins has done this season. This team was never likely to win many games playing a conventional style. It simply isn't strong enough in the halfcourt, either on offense or defense, to beat quality opponents. The pressure defense Huggins employed was a massive departure from his past WVU teams, and exactly what suited this group best. As a result, this season has been a massive success and a fresh reminder that Huggins is one of the premier coaches in all of college basketball.
KenPom Ranking: 24 (38th in Adjusted Offense; 39th in Adjusted Defense)
RPI Ranking: 21
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 4-7
Record vs. RPI Top 100: 9-7
Losses vs. RPI 101+: 0
Postseason Results: TBD
2009-10: 31-7 overall, 13-5 Big East
It's tough to argue against what was easily the most memorable season in the modern era of WVU basketball. The 2010 squad won in a way no Mountaineer team otherwise has since the days of Jerry West. They claimed the school's first and only Big East Conference tournament championship in dramatic fashion, only to one-up themselves by knocking off national title favorite Kentucky to win the East Region and head to the Final Four.
It must be pointed out that the schedule in 2010 was absolutely brutal. West Virginia faced a staggering 28 teams in the RPI Top 100, and in a sign of its quality as a team, it won 21 of those games. Like most of Huggins' best seasons at WVU, the year included no bad losses.
Huggins wisely utilized the 1-3-1 zone to great effect throughout the year, notably frustrating Kentucky in the Elite Eight with the change-up defense. Players like Devin Ebanks and John Flowers stymied opponents with their long arms and defensive tenacity. Da'Sean Butler was seemingly superhuman at times, doing just what WVU needed when it was needed most (and playing with an undeniable confidence in March). Less-heralded players like Wellington Smith and Cam Thoroughman made heroic contributions in key moments. Truck Bryant capably ran the point while Joe Mazzulla recovered from injury throughout most of the season, only for Mazzulla to return the favor when Bryant went down in the NCAA Tournament.
This team had far more overall talent than the 2015 squad, though, which is the only reason it ranks just behind 2015 when considering Huggins' best work at WVU. In Butler and Ebanks, WVU had two bona fide NBA talents in 2010 (though Butler's career was sadly derailed before it began by the catastrophic knee injury he sustained in the Final Four loss to Duke). Bryant and Flowers have carved out sustained professional careers overseas.
With all due respect to members of the current roster, I don't feel it comes close to the 2010 squad in terms of talent. Huggins won more and bigger prizes in 2010 than he is likely to earn in 2015, but that's due to the relative skill and versatility of his players then versus the ones currently at West Virginia. In terms of coaching jobs, 2010 and 2015 are both prime examples of what has made Huggins so great, but in my opinion, Huggins has gotten more out of less this season.
KenPom Ranking: 8 (11th in Adjusted Offense; 23rd in Adjusted Defense)
RPI Ranking: 4
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 10-5
Record vs. RPI Top 100: 21-7
Losses vs. RPI 101+: 0
Postseason Results: Big East tournament champion; Final Four
2007-08: 26-11, 11-7 Big East
When Huggins first took the West Virginia coaching job in the wake of John Beilein's departure for Michigan in 2007, there were immediate concerns about how the team would react to what was expected to be a radical change in style of play.
The Mountaineers had run an intricate offense that relied on a veritable boatload of set plays during Beilein's time in Morgantown, and they played a lot of zone defense. The team hadn't had a traditional post presence since D'or Fischer's departure after the 2005 season. Huggins was expected to rely on a man-to-man defense and a motion offense that didn't use a ton of sets. The teams from the latter end of the Beilein era had been known for their outside shooting presence, but Huggins' teams at Cincinnati and Kansas State were known more for interior muscle.
Coming off an NIT championship in 2006-07, and losing that team's best player (Frank Young), it was safe to say there was plenty of uncertainty about how Huggins' first campaign would play out. West Virginia took advantage of a soft nonconference schedule to build confidence and feel out how the team would play the game.
There were bumps along the way, including two separate stretches in which WVU lost three out of four games and an embarrassing 62-39 loss to Cincinnati in Morgantown. But as March rolled around, things began to click. With the steady leadership of senior point guard Darris Nichols, the outside shooting of junior Alex Ruoff, and the versatility of sophomore Da'Sean Butler, the Mountaineers had a solid foundation in place.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the sudden emergence of Joe Alexander down the stretch. Alexander became an unstoppable force, averaging 23.9 points per game when it mattered most in March. In the process, he led WVU to the Big East tournament semifinals and a spot in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, where Xavier needed overtime (and Alexander to foul out in that overtime) to knock out the Mountaineers.
Any questions that had existed about how Huggins would adapt to WVU's talent were quickly answered, as the new coach helped craft Alexander into WVU's first NBA Draft pick since Gordon Malone in 1997, its first NBA Draft first-round pick since Ron "Fritz" Williams in 1968, and its highest draft pick since Rod Thorn was taken third overall in 1963.
The foundation for future success was in place, and Huggins' honeymoon at his alma mater continued. The coach showed those in Morgantown he was amply capable of molding his system to fit the skill-set of his players, and that he could make good on the promise he made at his introductory press conference -- to "win big" -- in a hurry.
KenPom Ranking: 22 (36th in Adjusted Offense; 36th in Adjusted Defense)
RPI Ranking: 28
Record vs. RPI Top 50: 7-5
Record vs. RPI Top 100: 11-10
Losses vs. RPI 101+: 1
Postseason Results: Big East tournament semifinals; Sweet Sixteen