Huggins will readily admit that he’s having to control games from the bench a little bit more this year than he would probably like to.
“I can’t get five guys in the right spot after a timeout,” he said before today’s practice. “We can’t do anything on the fly, which I thought was our strength before, particularly with Da (Da’Sean Butler) and Devin (Ebanks). Devin had a great, great basketball IQ, so we could change a lot of things on the fly that we have no chance to do now.”
Consequently, you will frequently see Huggins calling out defenses from the side of the floor to make sure his guys are getting into the right sets on offense, and making sure all five players are guarding the right men on the other end of the floor on defense.
And lately, Huggins has also tried to open up the floor a little bit more to take advantage of what he believes are his team’s strengths. So far that has resulted in 74 free throw attempts in West Virginia’s last two victories against Radford and Eastern Kentucky. In those two games, the Mountaineers have outscored their opponents 57-17 from the line.
“We’re trying to get to the line more,” he explained. “We’re trying to spread people as much as we can spread people and drive it at the basket.”
With the guards going to the rim more often now, that can open up space for guys like 6-foot-10 forward Aaric Murray to get better looks out on the wing.
“The hope was we could iso Deniz (Kilicli) and Aaric more, and it gets Aaric out where he can make some shots instead of moving Aaric where they can stand and guard him,” Huggins said. “Now we can kind of stand him out there, which if they leave him I told the guards to throw him the ball and let him shoot it. He shoots it better than you do so we’ll let him shoot it.”
Huggins did something similar years ago when he was at Cincinnati and his Bearcats were struggling to make shots at one point in the season.
“We kept clanging shots so I called timeout and told the post guys, you guys get out behind the line and let those guards rebound and see how they like it,” he recalled. “What happened was I had guys start making them and it really changed what we did. Against a zone I had (Keith) Starks shoot them and told the guards to go in and rebound, which I’m about to do with these guys.
“Aaric can shoot it out there, and he very well may be our best 3-point shooter.”
Huggins is also searching for that one guy who can give his team instant energy coming off the bench. In recent years guard Joe Mazzulla provided that role and before that, when Huggins was at Cincinnati, he usually found a player who was willing to come in and change the game in some manner or form.
This year it is looking like Gary Browne is becoming that guy. Browne is coming off a season-high 17 points against Eastern Kentucky and is actually averaging two more minutes per game of playing time than starter Jabarie Hinds.
“I’ve always tried to have a guy come off the bench,” Huggins said. “Mazzulla did it for us for a long time. I kind of talked to him and he understood why so he was good with it. I think Darnell Burton is one of the top 10 leading scorers in the history of Cincinnati and he never started a game. He made such a great impact coming off the bench. Tarrance Gibson didn’t start a game until Allen Jackson tore his knee up in the second round of the tournament because he gave us so much coming off the bench.
“I always want someone who can change the game a little bit – come in and change it in some way or another. Burton changed it because he came in and made shots,” Huggins continued. "Tarrance Gibson changed it with his energy and I think that’s what Gary does. That’s what Mazzulla did. When we brought Mazzulla in the game … you know how everybody is all keyed up to play and then you settle in, well then you bring Joe Mazzulla in and now all of a sudden you’re a little more revved up than they are and that’s kind of what we want to do with Gary.”
What Huggins is still seeking from Browne and Hinds – and really from the entire team – is a little more consistency. It makes things a whole lot easier on the old coach when he can come into the gym and know what he’s going to get from his players on a daily basis.
“Both of them are shooting it much better in practice. I think what you fight is they fight their mechanics,” Huggins explained. “They know what they’re doing wrong and you come in the gym and you do it, but then you get into the game and people are running at you and you just revert back to the mechanics that you’ve basically done your whole life. It’s just a matter of shooting it the right way enough that they can transfer that into game situations.
“To this point they obviously haven’t.”
Huggins has also been unable to pare down his rotation to eight or nine guys and he likely won’t on Saturday against Oklahoma. The Sooners, West Virginia and Texas Tech are the only three teams in the Big 12 that don’t have at least two players averaging more than 26 minutes per game, meaning there has still been a lot of experimenting going on among those three teams.
“I didn’t play (forward) Kevin Noreen for two games and he deserves to play,” Huggins said. “We need to get him into the game. He brings too many good things to the package to not play him. Then you add him it’s 10 and who knows? If we don’t make any shots then maybe Matt Humphrey can make a shot, or Aaron Brown. A.B. was our best 3-point percentage shooter a year ago.”
Huggins may have to go to some of those guys on Saturday against Oklahoma because the Sooners have one of the stingiest defenses in the Big 12, limiting teams to an average of only 61.3 points per game. West Virginia’s 70 points scored against Oklahoma earlier this year were the third-most points the Sooners have allowed in a game this year.
And coach Lon Kruger will likely have an answer for that against the Mountaineers.
“He does a great job of coaching them,” Huggins noted. “They beat us in transition in Orlando. Probably their last six or seven baskets were in transition or second shots, so they do a great job in transition but they’re not one of those teams that has to do that.”
It’s a safe bet that Huggins will be doing even more adjusting on Saturday.
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m.
Bob Huggins, West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Oklahoma Sooners, Big 12 Conference men's basketball
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