MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There was no secret weapon on its way and no plans were etched in stone when Bob Huggins told the world he had to fix the West Virginia U. men’s basketball program during its first season playing in the Big 12 Conference, in 2013.
“We simply had to get better. We had to get more athletic.” Huggins said. “It’s a different deal in the Big 12 and we had to adjust. Playing in the Big East meant going out and finding big and strong guys who could play physical. In the Big 12, you have to have guys who can bounce it and do different things.”
From the learning experiences of that 13-19 season in 2012-13 came what may have been one of Huggins’ finest performances of his career.
Utilizing a deep roster of players and a relentless full-court pressure, the Mountaineers went from sour to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this season.
Along the way, WVU finished with 25 wins, picked up victories against nationally-ranked Connecticut, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Maryland, and found itself in the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2011, reaching as high as No. 14 in the country.
“The man said he was going to fix it and he did,” WVU forward Devin Williams said. “He came up with a plan for us to be successful and he kept us focused all season. That’s about all you can ask for.”
WVU’s run to the Sweet 16, which ended with a 79-38 loss against top-ranked Kentucky, was the third time in Huggins’ first eight seasons he guided the Mountaineers that far in the national tournament.
“I think we’re back where we’re used to being,” Huggins said after the loss. “Back to where I’m used to being, anyway.”
Something else Huggins is used to: Being named the Furfari Award/College Coach of the Year winner as the state’s best collegiate coach. Huggins was named the 2015 winner by the W.Va. Sports Writers Association, the fourth time he’s won the honor. He will be recognized at the 69th annual Victory Awards Dinner on May 17 at WesBanco Arena in Wheeling. Tickets for the event are available at state daily newspapers.
Huggins was also awarded the Big 12 Coach of the Year and the national Jim Phelan Coach of the Year honors earlier this year.
West Liberty University men’s basketball coach Jim Crutchfield and former Marshall head football coach Bob Pruett are the only other four-time winners of the Furfari Award.
Former Fairmont State men’s basketball coach Joe Retton won the award a record five times.
“I think a lot of it started in the weight room with Andy (Kettler, WVU basketball strength coach) teaching those guys and making sure they knew it was going to take a lot more work than what they had put in where they came from,” Huggins said about the Mountaineers’ success this season. “Our older guys were good examples. We had good chemistry, which helps, but a lot of other things had to come together, too.”
The Mountaineers, who began the season with seven new players in their rotation who were not part of the team the season before, found success immediately, winning 14 of the first 15 games of the season, including a championship in the Puerto Rico Tip-off tournament.
The full-court pressure, and the Mountaineers’ ability to grab offensive rebounds was the key. As a team, WVU had never led the NCAA in any statistical category, but finished the 2014-15 season as the nation’s leader in turnovers forced (678) and offensive rebounds per game (16.43).
The 678 turnovers forced in one season was also a school record.
It was a team that believed its strength came through its numbers and a team that was as tough, resourceful and gritty as Huggins.
“It seemed like everywhere we go people say, ‘Well, it’s not pretty,'” Huggins said during the NCAA tournament. “Well, I think it’s beautiful. I love it. I love the fact that we can’t make shots and still win and still find ways to score.”
The state provided a strong field of college coaches this past year.
Concord head football coach Garin Justice finished second in the voting. Justice guided the Mountain Lions to the Mountain East Conference championship with the school’s best-ever record of 13-1. Concord advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinals and was ranked No. 5 nationally.
Marshall football coach Doc Holliday finished third after guiding the Thundering Herd to a 13-1 record and a national Top 25 ranking. Marshall won the Boca Raton Bowl against Northern Illinois after capturing its first Conference USA title.
Nikki Izzo-Brown placed fourth after guiding the WVU women’s soccer team to its 15th consecutive NCAA tournament with a 17-3-2 record. The Mountaineers won the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament titles.
Shepherd University women’s basketball coach Jenna Eckleberry was fifth after guiding the Rams to a 22-10 record in her first season at the school after the team ended 4-23 the previous season. The Rams advanced to the semifinals of the Atlantic Regional before falling to Bloomsburg University, 85-69.
WVU rifle coach Jon Hammond rounded out the top vote-getters and finished sixth. Hammond guided the Mountaineers to their third straight (and 17th overall) NCAA championship in 2015.