Men's Basketball Preview
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - With just two of his top five scorers returning from last year's 21-12 team, and eight newcomers to work into the equation, Bob Huggins may have to exhibit some Gandhi-like patience when preseason practice begins this weekend.
That's interesting, considering patience and Bob Huggins are two things rarely lumped together.
Wasn't it Gandhi who said patience means self-suffering?
"I have more patience with some stuff as I get older in certain areas, particularly on the floor areas," Huggins said Wednesday afternoon. "I had no patience when I first started. I thought everybody should know what I know. I have since learned that they don't."
This is Huggins' greenest West Virginia team since taking over for John Beilein in 2007. The veteran coach says the players he will be working with this year are much different than the ones he inherited when he returned to his alma mater five years ago. That squad was coming off an NIT title.
"Those guys were coached before," Huggins explained. "They had a great understanding how to back cut. They did different things with screens, but were very familiar with them. They did a great job of making the extra pass. John is a heck of a coach and they were also a mature group."
Most of the guys on this year's roster are still developing their deep voices and getting them to figure things out right away will be a big challenge.
"When you have eight newcomers, there are bad things going on everywhere," Huggins admitted.
In the time the coaching staff had them during their two-week tour of Europe last summer, Huggins said the biggest problem was getting them to run effective half-court offensive.
"I haven't seen any good half-court stuff on either end of the floor. I think we once went five minutes without getting a shot - both teams without a shot," he said. "It's hard to win like that."
That may be true, but it's also true that Huggins can take you, me, the pizza delivery guy and a couple of Rec Center scrubs and win 20 games. He's that good.
Huggins is just nine wins shy of reaching 700 for his career, which he should hit sometime in mid-December. Only 27 coaches have reached that milestone, and most of them got there near the end of their careers.
Huggins, beginning his 30th season on the bench, still has plenty of gas left in his tank and a whole lot more yelling to do. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, this year's group will respond and improve just like Huggins' previous 29 did.
One thing is for certain, this year's team passes the eyeball test. It is easily the most athletic group Huggins will put on the floor since his return to West Virginia and is similar in appearance to some of the powerhouse Cincinnati teams he had in the late 1990s.
And Huggins may have to take advantage of that athleticism until they can gain a little more moxie.
"We run faster, but we are trying," he joked. "It would behoove us to play that way because we would be able to score better that way and use our athleticism. Our league ends up being a grind-it-out league. If you look at the people who led our league in scoring, they end up being at the bottom of the standings. We are going to have to get better at grind-it-out play and making easy baskets."
In order to do that, Huggins is toying with the idea of swinging senior Truck Bryant over to the two-guard spot more this year to take advantage of his outside shooting. Huggins thought Bryant's shooting suffered when he was asked to run the offense at the point.
"I would like him to have the ball less," Huggins said. "I would like him to be a receiver; I would rather him be a catcher than a pitcher. He is our best perimeter shooter and he will be our most consistent perimeter shooter."
Last year, Bryant had a tough time finding his shooting stroke but eventually got it together at the end of the season, dumping 24 on Notre Dame in a big win at the Coliseum and reaching double figures in six of his final eight games. Bryant averaged 11.3 points per game, but shot only 33.4 percent from the floor - a figure he will need to improve upon in 2012.
"He was miserable from the field to start the Big East. He was shooting around 19 percent or somewhere in there," said Huggins. "When we got him off the ball he started to make his shots. He just has less things to worry and think about."
Fellow senior Kevin Jones also came on strong near the end of 2011, putting together double-doubles in his final three regular season games, including a 25-point, 16-rebound performance in a big win against Louisville at the Coliseum. Jones, too, struggled early before going back to the things he was accustomed to doing when he helped the Mountaineers to their first Final Four appearance in 51 years in 2010.
Jones and Bryant are the first duo to return as 1,000-point scorers in school history.
"(Jones) is going to be our leader, there is no doubt about that," Huggins predicted. "He just has to continue to do what KJ does, and that is making open shots and rebound the ball. He is our best defender. He is a three-man that can guard the five. He can conceivably be in the top 10 in scoring and top 15 in rebounding and he could be the best offensive rebounder here. That is pretty good, especially at a place like this that has had some good guys play here."
Huggins also wants more from junior forward Deniz Kilicli, who has displayed flashes in the past but has yet to put it all together on a consistent basis. Kilicli, at a slimmed-down 260 pounds, may be ready to do that this year.
"He is a lot better," said Huggins. "He is in so much better physical condition. His skill level is better. Deniz just needs to continue to buy in."
After Jones, Bryant and Kilicli, the rest of the roster is made up of unknowns. Redshirt freshman Kevin Noreen appeared in only seven games last season before receiving his medical hardship for a ruptured prepatellar bursa in his right knee. When he was on the floor he did display signs of being an effective player, but that was against competition a notch below the Big East.
The seven players Huggins brought in, headlined by New York's Mr. Basketball Jabarie Hinds, are talented and athletic. Hinds could be the answer at point guard, allowing Bryant to move to the two. Another freshman, Gary Browne, has a knack for making good decisions on the floor and will also be in the mix at the point.
Keaton Miles, a 6-foot-6 wing, showed signs of being an effective player this summer but he weighs only 205 pounds and is not yet battle-tested in the Big East. Pat Forsythe, a promising 6-foot-11 center, Tommie McCune, a 6-foot-8 forward, and Aaron Brown, a 6-foot-5 small forward, could also be factors.
Junior college transfer Dominique Rutledge has a Big East-ready body at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, but was slowed during the summer with a bad knee. He has since been cleared and is ready to go.
The ones who pick things up the fastest on the defensive end of the floor are the ones who will likely see most of the playing time.
"I firmly believe that you build defense from the basket out," Huggins explained. "We will teach it that way and I don't know how far out we can go. It depends on how quickly they can pick things up.
"We were probably the best pressing team in the early 90s (at Cincinnati), but what people lost sight of was our half-court defense - that was our base. We then extended out from there," Huggins said. "If you extend your defense, then you create holes and gaps. You have to be able to rotate."
Huggins has cooked up another difficult non-conference schedule that will get his team prepared for Big Eat play, which begins on Dec. 28 when Villanova comes to Morgantown. This year the Mountaineers have 16 games at the Coliseum, where they went 12-2 last season.
"We are going to try to win," Huggins said. "When this all shakes down, you are going to see that our non-conference schedule will be one of the best in the country. We have a whole bunch of teams that are potentially top 100 RPI teams.
"For as much as they say get a harder schedule - get a harder schedule and you will be rewarded for it if you win, then you are rewarded," he said. "If you don't win that is the type of risk you take with that type of schedule. You are supposed to win against the so-called mid-majors because they really help you RPI-wise, but if you lose, it is just another loss to a top 100 team, which isn't very good.
"We have got to win."
Reaching that objective begins on Saturday morning.
Note: Be sure to catch a sneak preview of this year's team at Friday night's Mountaineer Madness at the Coliseum beginning at 7:30 p.m.
West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, Bob Huggins, NCAA college basketball
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