Bob Huggins has always valued defense. It’s been a staple of Huggins’ teams at all of his stops from Walsh through his current tenure at his alma mater, West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are giving up just 60.5 points per game this season, and are recording more than five blocks per game. They’re also forcing 18.27 turnovers per contest, which is tied for the 15th-best mark in the country.
It’s been a team effort on the defensive end, with a couple of players standing out individually.
“We have a core of guys who really have gotten better,” Huggins said on Tuesday. “We have one very good rim protector, and another one who’s pretty good.”
One player who has improved, and has gotten the attention of the head coach recently, is Kedrian Johnson.
Huggins applauded Johnson’s efforts on defense following the win over UAB. The future Hall of Famer called the senior guard a “heck of a defensive player.”
Other players see the work Johnson has put into defending, as well. They also see what helps him excel on defense.
“The thing that sets him apart is that his lateral quickness is quicker than a lot of guys straight forward, down hill quickness,” Jalen Bridges said.
Huggins sees room for growth and improvement from his team on the defensive end. He acknowledged the fact that opponents will get tougher in the near future with the start of Big 12 Conference play looming.
Not only is the Big 12 loaded with quality teams — signified by the conference easily having the best overall NET Ranking in the country — but those teams play great defense, too.
West Virginia‘s 18.27 turnovers forced per game ranks fourth among teams in the Big 12.
The players, however, are ready to acknowledge how they’ve improved on the defensive end.
“We’re playing defense at a really high level, especially compared to last season” Bridges said of the current state of the defense. “I feel like in games we’ve really needed to, we’ve stepped up as a unit, we’ve gotten those stops and shut teams down.”
That doesn’t mean the players think the work is done, though.
“With our defensive principles, that’s what sets us apart,” Bridges said. “As the year goes on, we’ll get even better, which is the scary part.”
The defense has gotten better already, compared to before the season, when Huggins questioned what kind of defense he would have to work with.
How has it improved?
“We have two guards who are just absolute pests on whoever the opposing team’s best guard is,” Bridges added. “We have multiple rim protectors. Guys who can go in there. Guys aren’t just going to walk to the hoop and shoot layups.”
One of those pest-like guards is Johnson, who leads WVU in steals, averaging 2.2 per game, and is second on the team with 63 deflections this season. Seven of his team-leading 24 steals came in the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia’s biggest rival.
“It’s just pride, really,” Johnson said. “Just wanting to stop guys and wanting to defend.”
Along with his pride is a trust in his teammates behind him. That trust allows him to be even more aggressive on defense.
“When I take a chance, I really feel that I’m going to get the ball,” Johnson said. “If I miss it, or anything happens, they got my back. I don’t feel any pressure.”
Defense wasn’t expected to be the calling card for this year’s WVU team. But it’s become one, as Bridges said, due to the team’s make-up of having multiple players who can play well on both ends of the floor.
It also comes down to pride — and maybe no one takes more pride in a great defensive team than Huggins.