No coach, regardless of pedigree, is immune to second guessing from the fans and media when his team starts losing.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is no exception.
Put kindly, West Virginia is struggling. Put realistically, this team is in freefall.
The Mountaineers have lost five of their past eight games and four of their last five. February is when good college basketball teams coalesce as a unit and stack wins that build their NCAA Tournament resume.
West Virginia is doing neither.
After WVU’s inexcusable 67-60 overtime loss Saturday at TCU – a team in the bottom half of the Big 12 standings – the claws have come out and they’re aimed at Huggins, despite his 879 career victories.
The biggest gripe has been Huggins refusal to parse down his 10-man deep rotation. Ten Mountaineers average at least 13 minutes a game. None average as many as 25.
One knock on this free-flowing rotation is that it prevents players from getting into a rhythm because of the constant jockeying of minutes. The louder knock is that it transfers minutes that should be logged by better players to lesser talented teammates.
The first criticism – that the players don’t get a chance to “get into the feel of the game” – is too arbitrary to gauge here. That’s a subjective standard best evaluated from much closer than the 20,000-feet view we have from the outside.
This column is focused on the second criticism – the fact that better players are having minutes taken away for the benefit of less-talented ones. That’s a legitimate concern in allocating basketball minutes.
It’s not for this team.
This West Virginia team is unique not only because it goes 10 deep. It’s unique in how little differential there is between players three through 10.
The Mountaineers have no “superstars.” Peruse early NBA mock draft boards. You won’t see a West Virginia player. Huggins isn’t shortchanging the playing time of any transcendent player.
WVU has two “stars.” For the purposes of this discussion, the term “star” applies to players that could reasonably expect to be a first, second or third team All-Big 12 selection. The two West Virginia players who fit that criteria are forwards Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe.
They lead the team in scoring (Tshiebwe 11.0 points per game, Culver 10.4 ppg) and rebounding (Tshiebwe 9.3 rebounds per game, Culver 8.7 rpg). Lo and behold, those two also are first (Culver 24.3 minutes per game) and third (Tshiebwe 23.4 mpg) on the team in playing time. It turns out Huggins is playing his best players the most. Jermaine Haley is second on the team in minutes (24.1 mpg).
Some fans might wonder why Culver and especially Tshiebwe aren’t playing even more, seeing as they give WVU the most production. The reason is that Huggins can’t really afford to play them more.
The WVU big men struggle with foul trouble with the minutes they get. As far as Tshiebwe goes, at this time last year he was in the middle of the Pennsylvania high school playoffs. He’s playing more games and under more trying circumstances than he has in his life. After Tshiewbwe’s disappearing act in Saturday’s loss at TCU (one point scored), burnout has to be a concern for Huggins.
That brings us to the rest of the rotation. Culver and Tshiebwe are one and two, or 1A and 1B, on this team. The other seven players averaging double-figure minutes are fungible within this roster.
Freshman Miles McBride is third on the team in scoring (9.3 ppg) and fourth in minutes (22.5 mpg). Taz Sherman is 10th on the team in playing time (13.1 mpg) and sixth in points (5.3 ppg). Not a lot of production drop off within the rotation.
There just isn’t a significant talent differential within the rotation Huggins employs. Would reducing the minutes of say, Jordan McCabe (13.4 mpg, 3.3 ppg) and giving more to, say, Emmitt Matthews (21.1 mpg, 6.3 ppg) really result in noticeable improvement?
The production of the current rotation doesn’t justify the belief that if only the minutes are allotted differently, the Mountaineers will suddenly reverse their February swoon.
When you have a deck full of the same cards, no amount of shuffling will improve your hand.