This team preview is part of the RTC Big 12 microsite’s preseason coverage.
Burning Question: Can the Mountaineers get back to the NCAA Tournament without Juwan Staten?
West Virginia alumnus Bob Huggins returned to Morgantown in April 2007 to take over as head coach of the men’s basketball program. He made his presence immediately felt by getting the Mountaineers back into the NCAA Tournament during his first season. The school would go on to make five straight appearances in the Big Dance and produce one of my favorite tournament moments along the way. In the Elite Eight of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, a Mountaineers squad led by Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks upset a Kentucky team keyed by John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, 73-66. The game itself wasn’t all that interesting, but I’m a sucker for a bit of showmanship combined with just the right amount of taunting. So when I later stumbled across video of West Virginia players celebrating the victory by doing the John Wall dance on the podium, the moment became forever etched in my mind. It was peak college basketball — young kids without much an NBA future enjoying their victory over a roster full of NBA talent on the sport’s biggest stage.
Unfortunately, West Virginia’s fall from that peak was rather precipitous. Sure, the Mountaineers made the NCAAs the next two seasons, but they failed both times to get past the first weekend. In 2013 and 2014, the school missed the NCAA Tournament altogether, and after a 2014 trip to the NIT, two of Huggins’ top three scorers transferred out of the program. Things in Morgantown appeared to be in a downward spiral, as the Mountaineers were picked to finish tied for sixth in the Big 12 going into last season. Last year’s team, though, would end up exceeding those expectations. Behind All-Big 12 point guard Juwan Staten, West Virginia stormed out of the gates to a 12-1 record in non-conference play before finishing 11-7 in the Big 12, good for a fourth place tie with Baylor. The catalyst to that run was a decision by Huggins to employ a fast-paced, high-pressure full-court press that forced opponents to make very difficult decisions. The change worked. The Mountaineers returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years and made the Sweet Sixteen where they ran into a Kentucky team stacked with NBA talent once again. Despite the successful season to that point, there was no celebratory John Wall dance this time as the Mountaineers were pummeled by 39 points.