It was a long offseason for West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose time away from the court typically is spent trying to figure out how to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament instead of having to try and reconstruct a roster good enough to win more games than it loses.
But that is where things stand right now after last year’s disappointing season that saw West Virginia’s record dip below .500 for the first time in 10 years, catching everyone off guard – including Huggins.
“What happened last year has never happened to me,” the veteran coach said earlier this week. “I’ve never not been able to get guys to play how I wanted them to. Obviously, we had some deficiencies as well. We were going into a league with a completely different style of play, officiating, travel and everything else, and quite frankly, we weren’t very prepared for it.”
West Virginia played its best basketball in early February when the Mountaineers won four of five games against Texas Tech (twice), Texas, and TCU before fading down the stretch. There were some close losses and some not-so-close losses, and the team’s uninspired play in a last-second defeat against Texas Tech in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament was a microcosm of the type of season WVU endured in 2013.
“A year ago we didn’t pass the ball well,” Huggins stated. “We had a bunch of guys last year who thought that they could do some things better than others, and we tried that for a while and that obviously didn’t work.”
Four conference losses were decided by five points or less, including a 61-56 defeat to Kansas at the Coliseum in late January. Iowa State pulled out a two-point victory in Ames, and Kansas State and Baylor hung on for close wins in Morgantown. In the past, Huggins’s teams usually found a way to win close basketball games, especially the ones at home.
“We had guys who were blaming other people. When their stats were showing that they were just bad, there were guys coming in who should have been apologizing for how bad they played when, instead, they were blaming other players,” said Huggins. “We had a lot of players last year who thought ‘don’t beat me and I won’t beat you’ or ‘I’ll let you shoot if you let me shoot.’ It’s not like that now.”
There were a lot of factors that went into last year’s 13-19 record. No. 1, West Virginia was simply not equipped to play Big 12 style of basketball. The roster was assembled for Big East play and that didn’t really suit the teams the Mountaineers were facing. No. 2, some of the older players didn’t perform up to expectations and consequently, younger guys ended up getting most of the minutes down the stretch and at times it really showed.
And finally, travel was clearly an issue. There were several instances when the team returned to Morgantown in the wee hours of the morning after a midweek conference night game and that eventually took its toll late in the season. Huggins said the Big 12 has taken steps to help West Virginia with its league schedule this season.
“I think the commissioner (Bob Bowlsby) deserves a lot of credit because he was very vocal about changing it - we have to do our best to help these people, because we were at a terrible disadvantage,” said Huggins.
As for this year’s personnel, Huggins has renovated his roster with an emphasis on finding some shooters to complement a strong returning cast of backcourt players that includes promising sophomores Eron Harris
(9.8 ppg. in 2013) and Terry Henderson
(8.0 ppg.), and juniors Juwan Staten
(7.6 ppg.) and Gary Browne
All six of the players in this year’s top 25-rated recruiting class stand 6-foot-7 or taller, and according to Huggins, all of them have the ability to knock down outside shots.
“I think the one thing we’ve made a conscious effort to do is recruit people who can make shots,” he said. “ (Junior college transfer) Rémi (Dibo) can step out and make shots. (Freshman) Nathan (Adrian) can step out and make shots. He may not be able to stretch it out to 3, but (freshman) Devin Williams
can make shots. (Freshman) Brandon (Watkins) can step out and make shots. And I think (junior forward) Kevin Noreen
has figured out that he needs to be a more consistent perimeter shooter and he’s worked very hard at that.”
The playing status of two newcomers – (junior college transfer) Jonathan Holton
and (freshman) Elijah Macon
– is still up in the air, but Huggins expects to get an answer on them soon.
“Everybody is eligible to practice except for Elijah. It’s kind of a moot point because of his wrist, though. Also, he is unable to run now because he hurt his toe. As of right now, Jonathan is not eligible to play, but he is available to practice. We will have a final answer on that by the end of the week.”
Huggins isn’t sure what to expect from his team after just a few preseason practices, but so far he has been happy with their attitude and their willingness to work hard.
“I think their demeanor is so much more different,” he said. “Their enthusiasm is a lot better. I think what we had and what we lacked was having guys who took it to heart to not waste days. They understood the importance of coming in and getting better.
“I’ve never really been one of those guys that thought it was bad chemistry because the players either hated me or were scared to death of me, so they were all on the same page,” he added. “You can look at a team like Kansas State, who had trouble scoring points at times, but they guarded well and won close games and ended up tying for a conference championship.”
All things considered, the bottom line for this year’s team is defense. Specifically, how much can they improve on last year’s deficiencies? In 2013, West Virginia allowed opposing teams to average 68.1 points per game and shoot nearly 45 percent from the floor, and that’s simply not going to cut it with Huggins.
“As bad as we were last year, the number of games that we should’ve and could’ve won were numerous,” he pointed out. “We had a chance to win a lot more games, but we didn’t guard much. I think style of play had something to do with it, but we didn’t guard teams with the resolve that we have had in the past.”
One thing to keep in mind: The two times Huggins had losing seasons in his first year of coaching at Walsh in 1981 and later at Akron in 1985, his teams rebounded to win at least eight more games than the prior season. After going 14-16 in ’81, Walsh won 23 games in ‘82 and Huggins’s Akron team in 1986 was 10 wins better than his ’85 team that won 12.