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UConn men’s basketball opponent preview: West Virginia

Bob Huggins’ teams have a unique identity

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more marquee out of conference matchups for UConn men’s basketball this season is the return of an old Big East rival. As part of the Big East-Big 12 Battle, the Huskies will travel to Morgantown, West Virginia on Dec. 8 to take on the Mountaineers.

It’s a rivalry that’s gone back since 1995, with the Huskies holding a 15-4 advantage overall but West Virginia owning the most recent victory, a 78-58 win in the 2014 Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

Bob Huggins is one of the more illustrious and, shall we say, unique coaches in college basketball. This will be his 40th year stalking the sidelines, where he sits sixth in all-time wins at 900. To put that in perspective, he’s three and four wins respectively from passing Bob Knight and Roy Williams. After that, he’s setting his sights on some Irish guy named Jim.

Huggins is cut from the same old school, tough love cloth as Calhoun, but there’s a softer side that makes him oddly endearing. Huggins’ teams are hard-nosed and physical, with a pressure-cooker 1-3-1 defense that traps incessantly and forces teams to play at an uncomfortable tempo. Very few coaches at the college level trot out this sort of defense, but Huggins has “Press Virginia” down to a science, and it speeds teams up into playing ugly basketball. The messier and chaotic possessions are, the more likely West Virginia will have their way. Take a drink every time you hear an announcer say “rock fight” when watching West Virginia this season.

Last year, West Virginia went 19-10 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Syracuse. They finished last season ranked No. 23 in KenPom, just two behind UConn. For 2022, their KenPom position sits at No. 46 and are tied for fifth in the preseason Big 12 poll with Oklahoma State.

For as iconic as Huggins’ defenses are, he’s shown a willingness to mold his team’s offensive identity based on the skillsets he has at his disposal. When big man Oscar Tshiebwe departed last season just 10 games in, Huggins switched to a more balanced inside-out offense built around forward Derek Culver and guard Miles ‘Deuce’ McBride.

Those two are gone, and Huggins will have to get creative with schemes this year to carve out an effective offense. The transition could be easier if transfers Pauly Paulicap (DePaul) and Dimon Carrigan (FIU) are attacking the glass and rim-running at an elite rate. Carrigan ranked 18th and 11th nationally in shot blocks and rebounds, respectively.

In the backcourt, keep an eye on Old Dominion transfer Malik Curry, who will be tasked in replicating the production left when McBride opted to stay in the 2021 NBA draft. Junior Sean McNeil and super senior Taz Sherman, a preseason Big 12 honorable mention, both return after averaging double-digits last year and shooting better than 35 percent from three. Freshman guard Kobe Johnson, Ohio’s Division 1 Player of the Year, could break into the rotation soon as well.

Other wild cards include Jalen Bridges and Isaiah Cottrell, the latter of which is coming off an Achilles tear last December. Husky fans are well aware of the timetable required for a serious injury like that, so don’t be surprised if UConn doesn’t see much of him come this December.

Rebuilding years under Huggins are hardly like rebuilding years anywhere else. His teams have made a postseason tournament 34 times in his first 39 seasons, 25 times to the NCAA tournament. He has had 30 seasons with at least 20 wins, two Final Fours, and five other Sweet 16 appearances. It may take some for the newer pieces to coalesce and roles to be established, but Huggins’ teams are rarely bad and always figure it out. Husky fans should be glad they’re seeing West Virginia in December and not in February or March.

With the talent at Huggins’ disposal the last few years, he was able to tweak and even tone down his Moonshine-infused 40 Minutes of Hell. But with so many roles on the roster not yet defined, don’t be surprised if Huggins reverts back to constants that have made him an eventual shoe-in for the Naismith Hall of Fame. Dan Hurley and company should brace for a physical, pressuring defense and an offense with schemes that maximize a roster’s talent. Does that sound familiar?

If UConn is careless with the rock and can’t match the Mountaineers’ physicality, they’ll be having nightmares of “Country Roads” for weeks.