It was how West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins played. It was how his father coached him to be. That is the origin of West Virginia’s relentlessly aggressive style affectionately known as Press Virginia.
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin, a member of Huggins’ staff at Kansas State a decade ago, knows the man and the style.
“It’s how he played,” Martin said. “That’s who he was. He was a tough, hard-nosed, don’t-back-down-from-anyone player. And he pursued the basketball. And he was relentless. It’s the way his personality is.”
Kentucky will see how well West Virginia reflects Huggins’ personality on Saturday.
The numbers suggest the Mountaineers do this well. WVU ranks No. 31 nationally in field-goal defense (opponents shooting 40.2 percent), No. 7 in steals (9.3 per game), No. 3 in opponents’ turnovers (19.1 per game) and No. 2 in turnover margin (plus 7.0).
Opponents have averaged barely one more basket (21.2 per game) than turnovers (19.1) against West Virginia. Opponents also average a turnover on 25.5 percent of their possessions.
Given Kentucky’s sometime problem with turnovers, the Press Virginia style figures to be a prime factor in the game.
Perhaps because WVU lost three of its last four games, Huggins sounded unimpressed with his team’s defense to date. “Not very good right now,” he said on a Big 12 teleconference Thursday. “We haven’t played near as well as we have before. I don’t know what we are, to be honest with you. We try to disrupt people as best we can.”
As Dick Vitale might say, West Virginia did not lose to cupcakes. No. 5 Kansas, No. 14 Texas Tech and receiving votes TCU beat the Mountaineers in the last two weeks.
Huggins did acknowledge that senior guard Jevon Carter has defended well. The National Association of Basketball Coaches named Carter its National Defensive Player of the Year last season. He is one of only three players ever to be named to the Big 12 all-defensive team three times. Carter, who ranks second nationally in steals (3.4 per game), could be the first to make it four times.
“He’s got great feet and great hands,” Huggins said of Carter, “and great anticipation.”
West Virginia, which is ranked No. 7, has an overall record of 16-4 (5-3 in the Big 12).
On a Southeastern Conference teleconference, the word “unique” got a workout when coaches were asked about West Virginia’s style.
“It’s different,” said Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes, whose Texas teams played Huggins-coached teams at Kansas State and then West Virginia. “I don’t think (UK Coach John Calipari’s) team has played anybody like that this year. Nobody in our league plays like that. . . . They’ll press when they miss a shot. They’ll go up and double-team a rebounder sometimes.”
Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy, who worked on Huggins’ staff at Cincinnati, said the Press Virginia approach involved persistence and insistence.
“He wants them to impose their will on a game . . . ,” Kennedy said. “And they really, really created havoc in college basketball because it’s so unique. It basically comes down to imposing their will on you and forcing you to play the way they want you to play.”
When asked to explain how this is unique, Kennedy said, “The commitment to constant pressure. On a make. Or on a miss. Or whatever the circumstances may be. Up 10. Down 10. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to have to deal with that pressure. The consistency of it.”
An SEC team, Texas A&M, whipped West Virginia 88-65 on Nov. 10. Press Virginia made an impression on the Aggies’ coach, Billy Kennedy.
“The uniqueness is they’re relentless,” he said. “They play hard every possession.”
Besides the defensive pressure, West Virginia can also try to impose its will on offense. The Mountaineers rank No. 2 nationally in offensive rebounding.
“They send four guys to the offensive glass,” the A&M coach said. “They put so much pressure on you defensively and offensively.”
Of course, there’s a downside to pressure. If the opponent can beat the pressure, it opens up scoring opportunities. That’s how A&M beat West Virginia.
“You’re going to get opportunities to score and open shots,” Billy Kennedy said. “You’ve got to be able to make them. That was a big key for us.
“You have a tendency sometimes to try to be too patient and deliberate. And that sometimes plays into their hands.”
Here’s how the A&M coach summed up the challenge Kentucky faces:
“You’re just getting a tough team in a tough environment,” he said, “and you have to be willing to match their toughness.”
Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 15-5 (5-3 SEC), West Virginia 16-4 (5-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 15-5
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-39 on March 26, 2015, in the NCAA Tournament round of 16 at Cleveland.
Big 12/SEC Challenge
Noon: Texas Tech at South Carolina | Noon | ESPN2
Noon: Baylor at Florida (ESPN)
2 p.m.: Ole Miss at Texas (ESPN2)
2 p.m.: Georgia at Kansas State (ESPNU)
2:15 p.m.: Oklahoma at Alabama (ESPN)
4 p.m.: Tennessee at Iowa State (ESPNU)
4 p.m.: TCU at Vanderbilt (ESPN2)
4:30 p.m.: Texas A&M at Kansas (ESPN)
6 p.m.: Oklahoma State at Arkansas (ESPN2)
7 p.m.: Kentucky at West Virginia (ESPN)