Men's Basketball, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU, Maryland both had several pieces to bring together before making a run at NCAA tourney

MORGANTOWN — It begins with scattered pieces across a table in what appears to be one jumbled mess.

You somehow find two pieces of the puzzle to come together, then three, four and five. After a lengthy process, that jumbled mess begins to take form.

The era of the transfer portal — where athletes from different schools, maybe even worlds, are thrown together in a hurry with the hope they can bring instant success — is in full bloom at the NCAA tournament.

At the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala., West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins and Maryland’s Kevin Willard will battle in the first round at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.


Both have built their NCAA-tournament rosters, in part, through the portal.

Maryland has six players who have played at other Division I schools, including leading scorer Jahmir Young, who was the leading scorer at Charlotte this time last year.

WVU has five, including its leading scorer in Erik Stevenson, who had three other stops at Division I schools before arriving in Morgantown.

Getting their collective pieces to come together was a real-life puzzle, a process that wasn’t always a smooth transition.

“You got guys out of the portal that, honestly, some of them fit in, some of them struggled to fit in,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said during Wednesday’s press conference.

Willard, in his first season at Maryland after 12 seasons at Seton Hall, said he forced himself to be selective in what players he went after, because he didn’t want to damage the future of the program.

“Your first year in a program is really important. You want to lay down the foundation for what the future is going to be,” Willard said. “You can bring kids in and try to knock it out of the park right away and try to do all this, and year two you are really struggling, year three you are really struggling. We brought kids in who I thought were extremely high character, good players, and all wanted to help bring Maryland basketball back to a level that we could sustain.”

Their success this season also saw some setbacks.

WVU (19-14) took a quick 10-2 start in non-conference play and turned that into an 0-5 start to its Big 12 schedule.

Along the way, Huggins had to put Stevenson on a short leash after his emotions got the better of him with two costly technical fouls in losses against Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

Longtime assistant Larry Harrison was also fired in January and Huggins hired DerMarr Johnson, a former player of his at Cincinnati.

“We just did a lot of things that are uncharacteristic of, really, of this group. And it cost us,” Huggins said. “It got to the point where it was time to sit down and say, ‘Fellas, we have screwed up. We put our backs against the wall, and we can either fight our way out or we can give up.’ Obviously they decided to fight their way out.”

Maryland was once ranked No. 13 in the country, but a 2-4 start in Big Ten play eventually led to the Terrapins (21-12) finishing in a tie for fifth in the league.

“I think guys like Don Carey, Jahmir Young, Pat Emilien, Jahari Long, those guys all came in and they are high-character kids,” Willard said. “They complimented the guys that stayed from last year, and I think that’s one reason we had success, and I think it’s one reason we’ll have continued success.”

Getting WVU’s puzzle to come together did not happen overnight.

At one point in the season, WVU forward Tre Mitchell — a transfer from Texas, who began his career at UMass — said players were struggling to realize their roles and fit into the program.

As to how Huggins helped bring it together, “I have a way. It varies,” he said.

His way, Huggins explained, is through building solid relationships, finding out what a player’s goal is in life and then showing him a path to get there.

And if a player strays from that path, simply improvise.

“Yeah, he’s going to let you know right there on the spot, whether you like it or not,” Stevenson said.

WHEN: 12:15 p.m., Thursday
WHERE: Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Ala.
TV: CBS (Comcast 2, HD 802; DirecTV 2; DISH 2)

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