Ready to pick up the pace
MORGANTOWN - Ask Matt Humphrey what it is that makes him think he will fit perfectly into West Virginia's basketball team and the answer would be a quick one.
He likes playing at a fast tempo - running up and down the floor and having the freedom to make things happen.
"That's what I've been doing my whole life,'' Humphrey said.
Strange, though, that he ended up at West Virginia to do that. After all, in recent seasons the Mountaineers have been anything but fast paced.
In fact, call them plodding, if you will. These have been WVU teams of late that relied almost entirely on defense to win, attempting to hold the Connecticuts and Syracuses of the world to 65 or 70 points in order to have a chance to score enough to win.
Running up and down the floor? Hardly.
But that's about to change. Coach Bob Huggins hopes that by the time WVU opens the season in just over two weeks, his once-plodding team more resembles racehorses. Thanks in part to guys like Humphrey, it just might.
"I like the way Coach Huggs is allowing us to get up and down the floor and play a lot more than he has in the past with different teams,'' Humphrey said. "It's something I'm comfortable with because I have a lot of opportunities to make shots and make plays.
"That's a big reason why I came here. It's nothing I haven't seen in my journeys.''
Humphrey's journeys have been extensive.
The 6-foot-5 wing player went from high school in Chicago to Oregon for two seasons. He transferred to Boston College and sat out a year, then played just one season for the Eagles.
Now, with diploma in hand (that's the reason he doesn't have to sit out another year) he's preparing to become perhaps the first player - or at least one of the very few - to play in half of the country's six power conferences.
"It's been long,'' Humphrey said. "I definitely didn't start out thinking I'd be at West Virginia one day.''
It's not that Humphrey hasn't had success along the way. He just hasn't had the kind of success he imagined.
During his two years at Oregon, he played in every game but the 12 he missed in the middle of his sophomore season because of a knee injury. He averaged 4.4 points as a freshman and 5.4 as a sophomore. He left there, in part, after Ernie Kent was fired after 8-23 and 16-16 seasons.
Humphrey landed at Boston College with new coach Steve Donahue and sat out a year as a transfer. Last season he led the Eagles in minutes and was second in scoring, averaging 10.3 points. But Donahue was in the middle of a rebuilding process and the style of play wasn't exactly up tempo.
Having earned his degree and with a year of eligibility remaining, why not uproot again? Humphrey didn't see himself getting any closer to achieving a dream of playing professionally while in a middling program (BC was 9-22 last season) that was in transition.
On the surface, it's hard to see anything but a basketball transient. But then when you look at the coaching change at Oregon, the transition going on at Boston College and the college degree already in hand, it's hard to fault Humphrey for his travels.
"You get in situations and you do what you've got to do,'' Humphrey said. "You have a dream and you've got to get to it the best way you can. I was in two different situations where I felt it just wasn't [conducive to] my success personally.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from my teammates there. They were good guys. But I have a dream and I think I'm finally in a place where I'm definitely going to be able to move forward and get some positive things back and hopefully reach my dream.''
Perhaps two things stand out when trying to assess why West Virginia is a good fit for Humphrey. First is that style of play that Huggins hopes to implement this season. Humphrey is a shooter who led or was near the top of the 3-point field goal stats for both of his prior teams. Granted, his shooting percentage declined each season - it was just 31.3 percent on 3s last season - but in a faster, more flowing offense the hope is that will change.
Humphrey is certainly likely to be given the chance to shoot. One of the reasons the Mountaineers had little in the way of offense last year was a dearth of outside shooters. That should change with Humphrey, freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris and any improvement shown by sophomores like Aaron Brown.
The second reason Huggins' program is a fit is because Humphrey is getting much stronger, something the rather lithe perimeter player - he was listed at 185 pounds at Oregon, 195 at BC and now 200 - will need if he ever hopes to play professionally.
"It's not like I can suddenly jump 10 more inches in the air or something,'' Humphrey said. "But I definitely see the difference in being able to take contact and finish plays better and easier and recover better.
"I've had two different weight-lifting coaches. Not to knock them, because we got after it both at Oregon and Boston College, but here they just demand a lot more out of you, and it helps and it shows. I've gained weight and I'm getting strong. It helps when it's time to go down there and bang, especially considering more of the frontcourt position I'll be having here.''
That's another thing Humphrey will have to adjust to at West Virginia. A team that in recent seasons has been guard poor is suddenly flooded with them. Juwan Staten, Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne are all more than capable point guards and sometimes two will be on the floor together. And with Aaron Brown, Henderson and Harris there are options at shooting guard.
So at 6-5 it's only natural that if someone has to play more of a small-forward role - along with Keaton Miles - it would be Humphrey. The center and power forward positions are well stocked with Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray, Kevin Noreen and Dominique Rutledge.
"The thing that caught my eye is how deep we are,'' Humphrey said. "This is a really deep basketball team. We've got a lot of guys who can play.''
Humphrey's biggest drawback is that he's essentially a rookie in Huggins' system. Aside from the three freshmen - 6-10 Volodymyr Gerun is the other - everyone else is a veteran in the system.
But Humphrey doesn't see that as a roadblock.
"I've been here since June 25th and this isn't my first walk in the park as far as offseason work and preseason work and getting into the thick of things with practice,'' Humphrey said. "I'm used to it and I know what I have to do personally and for the team in order to make us better and help guys around me and provide a little bit more leadership that they didn't have in the past because the team was so young last year.''
The bottom line is that this is finally Humphrey's last go-around, at his third school. He's played on both coasts and now, in the Big 12, he'll be in the heartland.
He can't wait for the chance.
"It's not like the situations I was in before were horrible,'' Humphrey said. "I just had a lot more downs than ups. I learned a lot of things. I appreciate Coach Kent and Coach Donahue. But I just feel like now I'm in a good place.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.