MORGANTOWN - Bob Huggins seems to have a higher opinion of the prospects for success of his West Virginia basketball team than most of those outside the program.Take the annual Big 12 preseason poll of coaches, for example. In West Virginia's first year in the league, the nine other coaches relegated the Mountaineers to the bottom half."What did they pick us, sixth?'' Huggins asked rhetorically Thursday, the day the league released the poll and the day before practice officially begins. "If we're the sixth-best team in that league then it's a hell of a league.''Well, the Big 12 indeed figures to be a top-notch basketball conference again. Consider that the first-place team in that poll was Kansas. After capturing at least a share of the league title eight straight seasons and with three starters back from a team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA title game, that's no surprise.
Behind the Jayhawks in the poll are Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas State. Given that the league's five-man preseason all-conference team - announced last week - includes one player from each of those schools, the rankings should be of little surprise.West Virginia? Well, the Mountaineers lost the heart and soul of their 2011-12 team when Kevin Jones departed. They also lost the most experienced player on the roster in Truck Bryant. Of the three returning starters - Deniz Kilicli, Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles - only Kilicli averaged in double-figure scoring, 10.7 points.And some of the biggest contributions this year are expected from players who have never worn a WVU uniform, particularly transfers Aaric Murray, Juwan Staten and Matt Humphrey.So what is at the core of Huggins' optimism? Well, a year ago this was a West Virginia team that essentially consisted of one All-America-caliber player (Jones) and a roster of mostly newcomers (save for Bryant and Kilicli) trying to figure things out.This year it's a team with nine of 13 scholarship players having been in the system for at least a season, collectively equipped with a more diverse skill set."We're going to be able to do more things. We can do things to change games,'' Huggins said. "We did a lot of things to change games last year, but none of it was positive.''Indeed, there wasn't much versatility last season when the Mountaineers struggled through an up-and-down 19-14 season and a lopsided first-game loss to Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament. With little or no outside shooting and not much in the way of a transition game, Huggins' team was pretty much left to rely on Jones or lose. That wasn't a difficult thing for opponents to figure out on one end of the floor, and on the other the Mountaineers always had defensive holes with so many newcomers.Huggins actually compares this team with the 2010 bunch that made the Final Four. He's not saying this team is that good, but at least coaching them is more similar to that than it was in reinventing the roster the last two years.
And that despite the fact that it was essentially pieced together with two transfers who were ineligible last season (Murray and Staten), another transfer this summer (Humphrey), a three-man freshman class that includes another summer addition (Volodymyr Gerun) and the seven-man core left over from last season, only a handful of whom were central figures on that team."I think it's a lot easier than it was a year ago,'' Huggins said, even going so far as to say that the 2011 summer trip to Europe, while good to get a head start on the season, made it too long. "They're more rested, they're more eager, they're more ready to go."And we've got guys who know what they're doing. Hopefully we can get to the point where we were when I had all those guys back [in 2009-10] and then you can start to fine-tune things a little better. We'll get more easy baskets because they're going to execute a lot better.''
From the outside looking in, of course, the question is where West Virginia will get its points. That's why few give the Mountaineers a chance to be the same type of upper-tier Big 12 team this season as they were in making five straight NCAA tournament appearances (and seven of the last eight years) as a member of the Big East. Jones and Bryant averaged 37 points between them last season and there aren't many on this roster who are seen as go-to scorers.But Huggins figures that works to WVU's advantage."Opposing coaches would tell me, when I was at Cincinnati and I didn't have a Kenyon [Martin] or a [Nick] Van Exel or a [Danny] Fortson, that we were harder to guard,'' Huggins said. "You couldn't key so much on certain guys and we were harder to guard because you never knew where it was coming from. And hopefully we can do that, get points from a variety of places and take advantage of what [opponents] are doing.''
The best bets might be throwing the ball inside to Kilicli and Murray, getting guard penetration from Hinds and Gary Brown and relying on what Huggins feels is vastly improved outside shooting, perhaps some of it from Humphrey, the grad student transfer who was second in scoring last season for Boston College."And I think we can score in transition, which we haven't been able to do,'' Huggins said. "Let's be honest, if we were two-on-one there was just as good a chance we'd throw it away as get a shot. But with [Staten] and with Jabarie's experience and Gary Brown's experience we'll be a whole lot better.''The only down side so far, Huggins said, has been some nagging injuries to all of the transfers (Murray's back, Staten's knee and Humphrey's shoulder], but he hopes all are ready by the Nov. 12 opener at Gonzaga.
The team will hold an open scrimmage and fan event a week from tonight at the Coliseum and will play its only public exhibition game Nov. 6 against Glenville State.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
Team (first-place votes) Points1. Kansas (9) 812. Baylor (1) 633. Oklahoma State 604. Texas 585. Kansas State 546. West Virginia 457. Oklahoma 348. Iowa State 289. Texas Tech 1810. TCU 9Nine points were awarded for first place, eight for second, etc.; Coaches are not permitted to vote for their own team.