The Sweet 16 matchup could be decided by Carter’s tenacious defense. And that’s perfect for Huggins.
Bob Huggins has been a Division I basketball coach for 33 of the past 34 years. Over the course of 774 victories, he has developed a defining characteristic he has imprinted on each and every one of his teams: He’s furious.
Huggins’ best teams all share that trait with their coach. They’re antagonistic. They play angry. And the 2017-18 West Virginia Mountaineers are no different.
WVU’s third Sweet 16 team in the past four seasons was forged in the fires of a vicious Big 12 season, where iron sharpened iron. Defensively, Huggins’ team refused to back down from anyone, playing a frenetic press-heavy strategy that harassed opposing ballhandlers and served as the catalyst for wins over Virginia, Kansas State, and Texas Tech before the NCAA tournament.
The team’s offense, on the other hand, has been waiting for its opportunity to explode. According to Kenpom.com, only one team in the nation played against a schedule loaded with tougher defenses than the Mountaineers this winter. Despite that challenge, they still managed to top 80 points in nine games against high-major opponents.
That brutal regular-season slate has paid off in the postseason as Huggins’ team has dominated against softer defenses in the NCAA tournament. West Virginia tallied 85 points in a first-round game against Murray State, then followed that with 91 against in-state rival Marshall.
So who is the fiercest gladiator in Huggins’ coliseum?
West Virginia’s 2018 success has been the product of senior point guard Jevon Carter’s emergence as a bonafide star. The second-team All-American has upped his scoring average each season he’s been in Morgantown, but truly exploded in his team’s first two blowout wins of the Big Dance. He slayed the Racers with 21 points, then lifted off for 28 against the Thundering Herd — including a 5-7 performance from behind the arc. Factor in his assists from the point, and Carter has accounted for 75 of his team’s 179 points in the NCAA tournament.
His offense isn’t the only thing that can take West Virginia to the Final Four. He’ll be critical defensively in the Mountaineers’ next game against a deep Villanova team whose backcourt can bleed you to death by a thousand cuts.
How can West Virginia stop Villanova?
There have been two ways to defeat the Big East tournament champions this season: out-shooting them, as Butler and St. John’s did, or forcing their high-volume guard rotation into low-quality shots like Providence and Creighton did. Those latter two teams allowed the Wildcats’ starting backcourt trio (Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo) to score 91 points in those games, but on a relatively inefficient 72 shots (1.26 points per shot). In Villanova’s 34 other games, they combined to score 1.45 points per shot.
That plays into the Mountaineers’ biggest strength: Carter is the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year. West Virginia ranks in the top 10 among 351 teams in Division I basketball in both steals and turnovers forced, giving them the nation’s No. 2 turnover differential. While Carter will draw his toughest assignment of the year against Brunson, another experienced senior and All-American, he is perhaps as equipped to handle it as anyone. Watching these two battle may be the best one-on-one matchup in this year’s tournament.
He won’t be alone, however. Carter had a bonkers 11 steals in his first two games of the tournament, but the rest of his supporting cast forced another 23 turnovers (albeit against a pair of double-digit seeds). Fellow senior Daxter Miles is another guard who can create chaos at the point of attack; he has racked up 137 steals the past two seasons. Long-armed forward Esa Ahmad is another weapon Huggins will deploy to irritate and annoy the Wildcats.
West Virginia will need every ounce of that pesky defense to stop Villanova. No team in the nation has made more three-pointers than the Wildcats, and no team scores more points per game. Despite that high volume, they’re also extremely protective of the ball; only 12 teams in the nation have committed fewer turnovers than Jay Wright’s team.
That means Friday’s showdown will be a strength-on-strength matchup dictated by the sort of singular efforts that create legends. Brunson is the bigger name, but that just makes him a target for a worker like Carter. The Mountaineer’s impressive senior season has been setting the stage for a masterpiece. Bottling up Villanova and pushing West Virginia to the Elite Eight would qualify.