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Final Four Preview: West Virginia

Fri, 04/02/2010 - 12:37am
Bob Huggins wants to beat you up. The 56-year-old West Virginia coach wants to smother you, rough you and bury you in physicality.

Bob HugginsBob HugginsThat's his style. You don't get the nickname Bob Thuggins for nothing.

For 670 wins at five schools, the always-swearing coach has mauled and clobbered and conquered. Few legends in any sport have dealt with the constant criticism Huggins has faced. He's seen as a bad guy who recruits bad guys, brutes who never seem to graduate at acceptable rates.

Now, he's back in the Final Four. He couldn't have done it without a tip of the cap to the anti-Huggins, the man he replaced, John Beilein.

In one of those great little twists of fate, Huggy Bear finds himself two wins away from his first title. And he wouldn't be there without the help of a trio of Beilein holdovers.

Da'Sean Butler wasn't a Bob Huggins recruit. That's not to say he couldn't have been. The Newark native plays with a constant chip on his shoulder. His thick frame is ideal for the slug-it-out defense Huggins preaches.

But he was a Beilein player, first and foremost. He's a dangerous shooter who can play cerebral, disciplined basketball. The last two seasons, he's proven capable of taking over games. But he can also work through the offense. Butler's a patient player who understands his limitations. He's not a Huggins recruit. He's a Beilein recruit who understood how to be a Huggins player.

Darryl “Truck” Bryant is the epitome of a Huggins player. He's hardened. He's skilled. His decision making is questionable, but he puts it all on the line every time. You won't outwork this kid. It shouldn't surprise anyone that he's tried to say he will play this Final Four with a broken foot. It'll take more than a doctor's note to keep him out of the biggest games in the last 50 years for his school.

But Bryant was forced out last weekend. He couldn't play against Kentucky, the No. 2 team in the nation. So Huggins had to turn to Joe Mazzulla.

Mazzulla is from Rhode Island. That's the first tip he's not a Huggins recruit. But he's an athlete. And he's tough. He's tough enough to score 17 points in an Elite Eight game against the best point guard in the country. He's tough enough to shoot righty free throws because his left shoulder hasn't worked right all season. He's tough enough to push past a suspension that almost got him kicked off the team last year.

He's tough enough to play the back of a 1-3-1 defense that drove Kentucky to one of the worst big-game shooting performances in recent memory.

Mazzulla is a Huggins player.

And that 1-3-1 defense? That just might be a Huggins defense, too. The unique zone was a staple of Beilein's teams. When Huggins took over the Mountaineers in 2007, he inherited an experienced team that played the 1-3-1 masterfully.

The trapping defense always seemed more of a Beilein tactic. He was a master at overcoming lagging athleticism with ingenius schemes, winning in the Big East with a mid-major mentality.

Huggins has injected Beilein's crafty zone with some human growth hormone. With the length, strength and physicality his team plays with, the 1-3-1 drowns opposing ball-handlers.

“We knew they were going to play zone, but we were confused by it,” Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins told Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal after the game. “We've seen 1-3-1 zones before, but not like that one. They had long arms. We could never pass the ball where we wanted it to go.” 

Huggins has a reputation as a hard-headed spitfire. But what brought him back to the Final Four for the first time since 1992 (when he was in Cincinnati) is quite the opposite.

Rather than tear down everything Beilein built up in Morgantown, Huggins built right onto the existing structure. He took everything good about players like Butler, Mazzulla and Wellington Smith and found niches for them within his style of play. He brought in his own breed of player – guys like Bryant and Devin Ebanks, to compliment the existing parts. And he made the 1-3-1 into the nastiest defense out there.

Bob Huggins will still maul you, but he's doing it a bit more systematically these days. And it just might bring him a title.
Scouting the Mountaineers

Record: 31-6, 13-5 Big East
Coach: Bob Huggins (670-240 in 28 years at five schools, 27-17 in 18 NCAA Tournaments)
Last Final Four Appearance: 1959 runners-up
Distance to Indianapolis: 379 miles from Morgantown, W. Va.

Why they can win: The Mountaineers are the most talented team remaining in the field, with at least two likely first-round NBA Draft picks in Butler and Ebanks, and another potential future first-rounder in Kevin Jones. They can match anyone's athleticism and length, and their smothering defense  is vicious. Opponents just get lost in its teeth. Led by Butler, Ebanks and Jones, this team rebounds with a passion. The Mountaineers are the second best offensive rebounding team in the country according to KenPom.com. They can control pace, which will be huge because Duke and Michigan State are capable of running a team off the court when they hit stride. They played one of the toughest schedules in the league. Their physical style would really be a nightmare for Butler, which has enough problems with foul trouble, should they meet in the title game.

Devin EbanksDevin EbanksWhy they won't win: Huggins has never been a good tournament coach. His teams at Cincinnati were constantly high seeds who struggled to make the second weekend. He earned a rap as being a bad game manager who struggled to prepare teams on short turnaround, leaving him weak in the second game of a weekend. Essentially, the opposite of Tom Izzo. If Michigan State is the matchup in the title game, we could be in store for a physical affair, but most would give Izzo the edge as a coach. Duke's Mike Krzryewski is one of the best tournament coaches around, as well. But Huggins has proven to have learned from past mistakes lately, and it may be premature to dismiss him. Still, the loss of Bryant leaves this team with just one true point guard, Mazzulla. And despite the kid's heroics, he's never been a very good player. Ebanks is so streaky, and Butler can be prone to bad shooting games. And at this point, you'd have to think in any close, late situation, the senior will be covered hard by opposing defenses and denied the ball. Will anyone be able to get him it?

Top NBA prospect: Devin Ebanks has spent this season diminishing expectations and teasing fans with flashes of brilliance. He was one of the hottest players in the country down the stretch last year, but he's been shakey offensively this year. Still, his length and athleticism make him a potential lottery pick, particularly if he has a big final weekend. He's an outstanding rebounder who has unbelievable length. His jump shot must improve, and Ebanks isn't as developed as his teammate, Butler, but he's got a much higher ceiling, notably on defense.

The X-Factor: Call it a hunch, but I think Huggins may have a Turkish trick up his sleeve. All season, Huggins has called Deniz Kilicli (pronounced Kah-LICH-luh) his best post scorer. The Turkish freshman was forced to sit out the majority of the season by the NCAA, and he's made very little impact on the Mountaineers in the time he's played, averaging just 6.6 minutes per game. Still, he's 6-foot-9 and has shown a nice array of skills in those limited minutes. Against Duke, the second-tallest team in the country, Huggins will need some height and inside precense. It's unclear if he trusts Kilicli at this point. But wouldn't it be something if Huggy Bear had a secret weapon and was so hubris he held onto it until the Final Four? 

Also See:

Final Four Preview: Duke

Final Four Preview: Butler
Final Four Preview: Michigan State
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