We Created Press Virginia: The Origin of WVU's Defense

Before there was an identity in Morgantown that led a fan base to alter the first name of its home state, there was a basketball program desperate for success.

Bob Huggins had just finished coaching two seasons that failed to yield an NCAA Tournament appearance, three of his top five scorers had decided to jump ship and those who remained faced uncertainty as to what the future of West Virginia University basketball had in store.

Two seniors, Gary Browne and Juwan Staten, saw the finish line of their collegiate careers approaching more rapidly than they were prepared to accept. When their head coach offered a potential solution to their collective misery, they were all ears.

“I remember that summer. It was a pretty rough summer,” Staten said from Finland, where he currently plays professional basketball. “Huggs just brought me and Gary in, he brought us in separately, and he told us we’re going to switch things up.”

Huggins told his senior guards that they would be part of a transition to a style of basketball that had once served him well in his days as head coach at the University of Cincinnati. They were going to start playing 94 feet of basketball. They would press and trap from the opening tipoff until the final horn sounded and it would work.

It had to work.

In order for the new system to really catch on and find success, however, Huggins relied on Browne and Staten to not only grasp it, but to teach it to the newcomers. That season, WVU welcomed eight players to the roster and many of them would be expected to play significant minutes.

The only way the scheme would play out as planned was if the rotation could go at least two deep at every position.

“We had young guys coming in who were fresh,” Browne said from his home in Puerto Rico. “They don’t know what to expect in college, so basically, we lead for them to follow us.”

It helped that the players Huggins went after that summer to fill holes in his lineup were exactly the sorts who would thrive in the new system.

“He recruited a lot of athletes. Guys who were quick, used to playing tenacious defense, so it really wasn’t about that part of it. It was about getting the guys to give their all every day in practice,” Staten said. “That’s something that me and Gary did in the summer. Our open gyms were different, we brought a lot more intensity to practice, we were more vocal, just trying to get the guys to play as hard as they could the whole time they were in the game. That was our biggest goal.”

For everyone to buy in, and to give that intensity the seniors demanded, the right environment had to exist. It required that whatever cloud hung over the program the previous two seasons made way for clear skies.

It started with the attitude they brought to each day’s routine, whether that meant in the classroom, in workouts or on the court.

“What me and Juwan did was try to get their mind to think that this is a new year, this is a new situation,” Browne said. “Forget about what we had in the past when we had those terrible seasons.”

As he spoke these words, Browne rubbed his hands together as though wiping them free of dirt that had stained his sophomore and junior years.

“We got along those two years and everything, but we were kind of negative when it came to weights and practice and all that other stuff,” Browne said. “We kept everything positive because me and Juwan knew if we started things negative, we would have the same results as we did in the last two years.”

Very early on in the process of introducing the pressure defense, it seemed clear that they were onto something. The proof was in how difficult it was for the returning players to break it.

Consider this: Staten, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year who finished his junior season with a league-best 18.1 points, couldn’t stand it when the Gold Team dialed up the full court onslaught against his Blue Team in practice.

“Being the primary ball handler in practice and having to go against it every day, it was annoying,” Staten admitted. “Facing that defense every day let me know that it was definitely going to be tough for other guards. It wasn’t really that hard to buy in.”

The hope was that the issues this defense caused the Mountaineers in practice would give their opponents the same headaches when the games started in November.

That is precisely what transpired and just as Staten felt annoyed facing the pressure in three-hour training sessions, the guards he lined up against left Morgantown feeling similarly maddened.

“Like Huggs said, you don’t want anybody in your face 24-7. At one point, you’re going to be like, yo, get out of my face, I’m sick of you. So that’s what we would do,” Browne said. “Make you tired physically and mentally.”

More mentally, as it turned out.

Browne would hear the other team’s guard yelling at his teammates that they weren’t coming back to the ball to help, but rather drifting farther down the court away from the pressure. He believes that was partly due to the fear that if they came back to for the ball, they would become the focus of the press and then they would be the one committing the turnover.

West Virginia finished the 2014-15 season with the most steals in the nation and the best turnover margin for a Power 5 school by a long shot. The result was a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and the program’s third Sweet Sixteen under Huggins.

Two years later, Press Virginia is back in the Sweet Sixteen for the 10th time in school history. WVU has led the NCAA in steals and in turnovers forced since the season began. It is no longer a new concept to an entire roster, but rather a system that seems poised to remain in Morgantown with veterans teaching rookies on an annual basis.

Browne and Staten consider it part of their legacy that a system they embraced partly out of desperation is now the bread and butter at WVU.

Staten, living in a time zone six hours ahead of his old college campus, has stayed up for 3 a.m. tipoffs all season long. On Thursday, the third round of the NCAA Tournament will get underway at 1:39 a.m. in Finland, and he will be dialed in to see his alma mater face No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

He will be watching to see if the freshmen and sophomores from his own run to the Sweet Sixteen can advance beyond the reaches of his most successful year with the Mountaineers.

“They were freshmen in that game [against Kentucky in 2015] and it was the biggest game in their career up to that point, so they got a taste of that,” Staten said of juniors Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Elijah Macon. “It wasn’t a good taste, but it should also fuel their fire and let them know now that this Gonzaga team that we’re about to play is not as good as that Kentucky team that we played two years ago. They should have all the confidence in the world and be ready to step into this game.”

In Puerto Rico, Browne will be tuned in to see if West Virginia can move one step closer to the goal he set out to achieve when he first signed with the Mountaineers out of high school.

“I love them boys. I saw them grow, basically, from freshman year to their junior and senior years. I’m really proud of them,” Browne said. “It doesn’t matter the results that they have, I’m still going to be proud of them for doing what they did because it’s not easy to go day by day out there in class, weights and practice and having to travel all those miles and come back. It’s very hard. That’s what people don’t see.

“I want them to win a national championship just because they work so hard and the state needs it and that’ll be Huggs’ first championship and I want to see him win one.”

Two years ago, they created Press Virginia. Now, Browne and Staten consider themselves two of its biggest fans.


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