Bob Huggins sought out an old friend this summer at the LeBron James Skills Academy. Based on the roster Huggs had put together, he decided this offseason that he wanted to employ a full-court press, and few in the game have mastered the press better than his old buddy, Kevin Mackey.
Mackey is famous for how his college coaching career ended—a drug addiction that took him to a crack house—but those in the game remember him for the exhausting full-court press that he perfected at Cleveland State in the mid-1980s. Mackey took the Vikings to their only Sweet 16 in 1986, and Huggins was a witness down the road as the coach at Akron back in those days.
So Huggins picked Mackey's brain this summer and invited his old friend to a practice in the fall. Mackey visited Morgantown and showed the West Virginia coaches some of his tactics and substituting patterns that allowed his teams to play such an uptempo pace.
"Just a couple of old coaches comparing notes," says Mackey, who is now a scout with the Pacers.
What the old coach helped unleash on college basketball, no one saw coming.
West Virginia, picked to finish tied for sixth in the Big 12 in the preseason, is the 18th-ranked team in the country and No. 1 in the most-dreaded-to-play category, thanks to a deep bench and 40 minutes of full-court pressure.
Facing the Mountaineers is like trying to play chess outside a bee hive. They scream at you. They trap all over the court. They gamble and swat at the ball constantly. And they not only lead the country in turnovers forced (22.1 per game), but they're also turning opponents over at a historical rate.
"We knew we could get teams to play different," West Virginia assistant Larry Harrison told Bleacher Report. "Our goal is to get them out of their half-court offense. That's what the goal was. We really didn't know that we could turn people over as much as we have."
Huggins had not really used a full-court press since back in his Cincinnati days, but he and his staff spent the last few years trying to build a roster that could play that way.
This past offseason the 33rd-year coach became convinced it was finally time to make the change. He missed the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1991, and then his second- and third-leading scorers transferred.
That allowed the Mountaineers to sign five new players, and they already had two guys sitting out. With seven new players and five returners who were part of last year's rotation, he had the depth necessary to play faster and apply full-court pressure.
And he wasn't going to just experiment.
"With Bobby Huggins, it's always both feet in," Mackey says. "It's not one foot in and one foot out."
The results, as Harrison said, have been beyond what the coaches imagined.
|Highest Turnover Rate since 2001-02|
|1. West Virginia (14-15)||31.1|
|2. Alabama A&M (01-02)||30.7|
|3. Air Force (03-04)||29.5|
|4. UAB (05-06)||28.8|
|4. Eastern Kentucky (14-15)||28.8|
|6. Air Force (04-05)||28.7|
|7. Houston (05-06)||28.6|
|8. VCU (12-13)||28.5|
|9. Delaware St. (09-10)||28.3|
|10. Houston (04-05)||28.2|
The Mountaineers average 44 deflections and are turning opponents over nearly once every three possessions. In the 14 years that cover Ken Pomeroy's database, West Virginia is turning opponents over at a higher rate (31.1 percent of possessions) than any other team during that time span.
The NCAA record book does not include turnovers forced, but if it did, a spot would likely be waiting for this defense.
It starts with the man at top of the press, 6'7" Jonathan Holton. Holton is a JUCO transfer who had to sit out last season because of an NCAA ruling, and he's now the noisiest forward in Division I.
"He's our anchor," Harrison says. "He's our high-motor energy guy who gets us going in the press. He screams, he counts, he jumps up and down."
Once the ball is inbounds, opponents have to deal with West Virginia's swarming quick guards, none of whom is taller than 6'3".
The Mountaineers trap all over the court. Every player off the ball cheats toward the ball-handler, and there are certain "hot spots" on the court where they try to force the dribbler and then trap.
"We tell our guys to take the ball out of the hands of the playmakers and let the guys who are not used to making plays make those guys handle the ball," Harrison says.
Figuring out a pattern to when they're going to trap, however, is almost impossible. They vary the kind of pressure to throw teams off. Sometimes they play full-court man-to-man. Sometimes they'll employ a zone press.
The end result is most teams get sped up and don't run their typical sets. The average possession for West Virginia opponents this season is 14.7 seconds, the shortest in the NCAA, according to kenpom.com.
"They do a great job of keeping you from running offense," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
|West Virginia Offensive Stats|
|eFG%||Rank||Adj. Off. Eff.||Rank|
The turnovers have led to so many easy baskets that West Virginia is a competent offensive team, despite poor shooting.
The poor shooting is why Huggins wants to make sure his team gets more shots than his opponent.
It makes sense for a roster that oozes athleticism and quickness but isn't overly skilled. Point guard Juwan Staten is the only top-50 recruit, according to Rivals.com, coming out of high school.
The best two shooters on last year's team—Eron Harris and Terry Henderson—are now at Michigan State and North Carolina State.
The leftovers and newcomers have bought into the selfless style that requires constant subbing and endless effort. The Mountaineers have 10 players averaging at least 13 minutes per game, and even Staten, an NBA prospect, has seen his playing time decrease nearly seven minutes per game from last season.
No one is complaining.
"They come with enthusiasm every day," Huggins told Bleacher Report on the Big 12 conference call this week. "Some guys you've got to motivate constantly and these guys have been really good in that regard."
Mackey is quick to say he doesn't deserve much credit for what West Virginia is doing, but he does get some joy seeing how his old friend is succeeding.
"I think what it shows is how talented he is and how adaptable he is," Mackey says. "Some coaches as they get older, they can't change. Every team has its own personality and own characteristics, and his team this year is different from teams he's had in other years. They have different strengths and different weaknesses and I think he's maximizing the strengths."
Mackey watches a ton of college basketball as an NBA scout, and he sees a lot of programs that could mimic his old Cleveland State teams and probably should.
"I personally feel that there should be more pressure, more teams should press," he says. "Kids in a lot of ways are better athletes than they are basketball players."
The explanation for why, however, is pretty simple.
"People are afraid," Mackey says, "and what they're afraid of is it's going to be a layup drill."
That is always the one criticism of teams that press. They give up too many easy buckets, and West Virginia can be used as an example.
The Mountaineers, according to the stats their coaches keep, are giving up 5.5 layups per game. They allow a higher percentage of shots at the rim (42.9 percent) than any team in the Big 12 and are only second to Indiana among power-conference schools, according to Hoop-Math.com.
But it's hard to argue against the style based off wins and losses. VCU presses, and Shaka Smart has been to four straight NCAA tournaments and a Final Four. Louisville presses and won a national title in 2013 playing that way.
Of course, it's not always an easy sell in recruiting to get guys to buy into playing less minutes and sticking out like a sore thumb if they're not playing with max effort.
"We have a saying that says 'The ball always finds the weakest guy,'" Harrison says. "If you're not playing hard, your man always seems to be open."
Mackey had his own saying back when he decided to start pressing as a high school coach: "Why concede half the court?"
The Mountaineers aren't conceding one inch.
And it is going to get Huggs back where he belongs in March.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.