WVU Returning to its High-Scoring Roots
I recall once having a conversation with a former football coach about what fans really want to see at college sporting events these days.
As a defensive coach, his position was that fans ultimately want to watch wins – no matter what the score ends up being. It can be a 7-6 football game, a 50-49 basketball game, a 1-0 baseball game or a soccer match that is decided by penalty kicks; people will always come out to support a winner.
Not necessarily, I countered.
Naturally, fans want to see victories in the worst way (fan is short for fanatic, as you know), but fans also want to be entertained.
It’s a lot easier to make the drive back to Charleston, Beckley, Princeton, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Wheeling, or wherever, when you have a bunch of touchdowns to talk about, I explained.
The same goes for basketball.
It’s a lot more tolerable to sit in traffic waiting to get out of the Coliseum and think back to Juwan Staten’s daring drives to the rim, the Terry Henderson tomahawk dunks or Eron Harris breaking someone’s ankle in the open court than it is to recall two teams grabbing and holding each other for two hours.
I don’t mind a hug or two every once in a while, but watching people hold each other for a couple hours straight can get a little old.
For years, West Virginia made a living off of its high-scoring basketball teams, beginning in the late 1940s with Lee Patton and continuing for the next two decades with Red Brown, Fred Schaus and George King.
Those Mountaineer teams back then ran and ran and ran until the other team dropped. And the fans loved it. I remember Schaus once telling me that when Patton coached the Mountaineers, he would yell in a high-pitched voice “run, run, run!” to his players. And like Forrest Gump, those guys didn’t stop running for more than 20 years.
The biggest sin Bucky Waters made as West Virginia’s coach, the old timers say, is to rein in guard Fritz Williams. Those who remember the Waters years in the late 1960s have never forgiven him for not giving the green light to such a wonderful talent like Williams.
In the 1970s, West Virginia returned to its high scoring ways, but unfortunately, the other team frequently found a way to score more points than the Mountaineers did.
Then Gale Catlett returned in 1978 and brought back West Virginia’s running-pressing-trapping (and winning) brand of basketball that WVU fans were raised on in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Even the good John Beilein teams, when his motion offense was synchronized and working at peak efficiency, were beautiful to watch with the way his teams passed the ball, shot the 3 and jelled together on the floor.
Bob Huggins’ West Virginia teams, too, showed many of those same traits – to go along with a street brawler’s toughness - to win more than 70 percent of its contests until last season.
Obviously, last year’s team was a tough one for Huggins to coach and a tough one for the fans to get behind. Huggins said he would fix it, and while much stiffer tests are on the horizon, it is becoming clear that this year’s team is heading back in the right direction.
For one thing, they are much, much more enjoyable to watch. They have scored 197 points in their last two games, are shooting better than 50 percent from the floor, and most importantly, THEY PASS THE BALL.
There is nothing worse than to see somebody hog the ball, whether it’s football, soccer or basketball, with each guy doing his own thing. This team shares the ball and it has shown that it can get up and down the floor.
“It’s a lot easier to run when guys know they are going to get the ball rather than running down there and standing and some guy is shooting it behind the backboard and doing those kinds of crazy things,” said Huggins. “They just play much better together. It’s more unselfish.”
“The reason that we’re running better is because guys are running,” he said. “We had that mentality a year ago and we’d run to the 3-point line and it was like an invisible fence. We’d put the brakes on right there and couldn’t cross it. We’d run for 3s, well, how about run to score a layup? We never did. I’d make them do it and then we’d get to the game and they’d run to that 3-point line and stop. And we couldn’t make them, by the way. I don’t mind Eron and Terry stopping and taking those because they can make them.”
For this team to be successful, it’s obvious the whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts – teamwork, guys being on the same page and all playing for each other – because it’s not a very deep squad and it does have flaws, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. But at the same time, there is a lot of room for growth and it will be interesting to see where a coach of Bob Huggins’ pedigree can take them in a couple of months.
He says his main focus right now is on the process of getting there.
“We can’t go too fast and skip over things at the end of the year and not get any better,” he explained. “We’ve got to build it as best as we can from the ground up.”
This team is showing a willingness to share the basketball. It is also showing that it can score. Now, we'll see if it can win - and if Mountaineer fans are willing to respond.
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