Commentary

Chameleon coaches meet in Elite Eight

Originally Published: March 26, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Bob Huggins had to ease into the West Virginia job three years ago, meeting the players in the middle at times after they were schooled in the nuances of John Beilein's system.

John Calipari didn't necessarily force his dribble-drive motion offense on any of Kentucky's returning players. But he had the luxury of knowing that they would do what he wanted without question in the fall because there were more contributing newcomers than returnees.

How each of the coaches seamlessly handled meshing former players and his own recruited talent helped speed up the process that put Kentucky and West Virginia on a collision course for a Final Four berth on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.

Kentucky streamlined its roster this season when Calipari arrived, but there was still a core of returnees led by Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller, Perry Stevenson, DeAndre Liggins, Ramon Harris and Billy Gillispie recruit Daniel Orton. Within weeks of getting the job, Calipari had landed arguably the top recruiting class ever, with the addition of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Darnell Dodson.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari's talented freshman class has made his transition at Kentucky seamless.

Patterson said that the change in philosophies from Gillispie's long, hard practices to Calipari's shorter, hard practices wasn't difficult at all.

"Not many people were having fun," Patterson said of the Wildcats' NIT season a year ago. The Wildcats went from dealing with a "bunch of problems" to actually "loving practice," he said.

"Most guys want to play this way so that's not that hard," Calipari said. "But there's a responsibility when you let them go a little bit, when you open and take the reins off. There's a responsibility of being unselfish, of making plays you can make and making tough plays, making plays in a tight game. You can't just come down and turn it over. We're giving you some freedom."

Patterson said he went from playing strictly in the post under Gillispie to playing more facing the basket on the perimeter. The personnel allowed him to make the switch with the addition of a low-post presence in Cousins.

Having the guard tandem of Wall and Bledsoe pushing the basketball made it almost impossible for the returning players to complain. There was an instant respect, and the belief that whatever Calipari was going to teach would work. The talent level was clear from day one.

Miller said the coaching staff deserves credit for telling the players what was expected.

"We had a lot of players going through the same thing we were going through," Miller said. "We were all pretty much in the same position so it wasn't a tough transition."

Still, Calipari had to massage egos and manage minutes. He had to adjust scoring options, too, as Patterson slid down behind Wall, Cousins and Miller and became much more of a defensive specialist.

"How many teams would Patrick Patterson be your third option?" Huggins asked, referencing Calipari's ability to transition into Kentucky without a hitch. "The guy was an All-American before and John did an unbelievable job to get those guys to buy into what he was doing. Darius Miller was heavily recruited and he's the fifth option. They play their roles and they've got a bunch of guys with huge reps with future aspirations. But John has got those guys to fill their roles and play as a team. He's done an unbelievable job; you have no idea."

Calipari got the Wildcats to accept defensive principles, as well. The way they played with such precision, passion and aggression on the defensive end in the first half against Cornell proved another way this team can be unselfish.

Huggins checked his own ego at the door when he took over for Beilein in Morgantown.

[+] EnlargeBob Huggins
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBob Huggins has had little trouble mixing in some of John Beilein's former players.

"He met us halfway," said West Virginia senior Da'Sean Butler, who played one season for Beilein. "It wasn't like at the beginning, 'If you don't rebound I'll kill you.' He saw what we did. Honestly, I don't know if I've seen someone watch as much film as he did when he came. He wanted to see what we were doing. He incorporated some of the old things and some of the new. That's why he's a great coach in my opinion."

Butler said Huggins gives players the offensive freedom to be a basketball player "instead of stiffs that run offense."

Fourth-year junior guard Joe Mazzulla said Huggins still uses curl screens, back cuts and fade screens like Beilein. The Mountaineers' 1-3-1 defense was also a hybrid of what Beilein had used at times.

Huggins said he has played the 1-3-1 before he got to West Virginia. He said he didn't want the returning players to feel uncomfortable with the way they played the defense and that has made him more at ease with the defensive set, too.

But emphasizing defense was an immediate shift.

"He said if you're not going to play defense, you're not going to play, so the ball is in your court," Mazzulla said. "Huggs threw his ego out. The 1-3-1 goes against his defensive philosophy."

But Huggins said he never saw resistance.

"These guys have been wonderful," said Huggins, who took the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16 in his first season, the first round last season and now the Elite Eight in Year 3. "There was never a 'Why are we doing this?' or "Why are we doing that?'"

Huggins said his team's offensive style isn't much different than what he ran at Cincinnati. There are still plenty of back cuts.

"There is more freedom to make a decision then there was when they played for John since he calls a lot more things than what we do," Huggins said. "I try to have them read the defense."

Now in Year 3, it doesn't matter who was a Huggins recruit and who wasn't.

"They're all my guys now," Huggins said. "The ones John recruited play for me. They're all my guys. It's all good when your best player [Butler] is all on board. He's the hardest worker, a wonderful guy and a great teammate and it makes it a lot easier."

The ability of both Huggins and Calipari to adjust with the personnel, to tweak and to manage the transition has resulted in a quick climb to the top. One of them will win Saturday and advance to the Final Four, but both have already proved their ability to adjust their coaching styles in pursuit of a championship.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com