Mountaineers must replace most of their point production
MORGANTOWN - West Virginia's first season in the Big 12 could be a test of coach Bob Huggins' streak of five consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament since taking over at his alma mater.
The Mountaineers lost more than half of their scoring production with the graduations of top scorer and rebounder Kevin Jones and guard Darryl "Truck'' Bryant.
That's where Huggins is taking the glass-half-full approach. Sure, Jones was the top scorer and rebounder in the Big East last season, but Bryant's shooting woes won't be missed and he also was part of a problem that plagued the Mountaineers all season - lapses in defense.
Deniz Kilicli is the top returner at 10.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and he'll get help from three transfers. Center Aaric Murray and guard Juwan Staten sat out last season after transferring from LaSalle and Dayton, respectively.
Matt Humphrey became eligible immediately as a graduate student after averaging 10.3 points for Boston College in 2011-12 and leading the team with 34 steals. He played at Oregon for two years before sitting out the 2010-11 season.
Staten is coming off minor knee surgery and played most of a 40-minute scrimmage last week, scoring 14 points and dishing out eight assists.
As a sophomore, Murray led LaSalle in scoring at 15.2 points a game and in rebounding at 7.7. He missed several months of preparation time since transferring with a broken hand but is healed up and brings a shot-blocking and offensive rebounding threat at center.
"He's not real comfortable right now because we're moving him around,'' Huggins said. "He's on the perimeter and he's never really been on the perimeter that much. I think he's getting better. He's understanding better. He gives us somebody around the goal, which we haven't had.
"We're asking him to do a lot more things than he's done before.''
Among the other top returnees are guard Jabarie Hinds, who was fourth in scoring last season at 7.4 points a game and led the Mountaineers with 108 assists; forwards Dominique Rutledge and Keaton Miles, and 6-foot-10 sophomore Kevin Noreen, who missed the final 10 games last season with a broken ankle.
Sophomores Gary Browne and Aaron Brown will provide depth at guard behind Staten.
"It helps us. You've got more than one guy you trust with the ball,'' Huggins said. "This is the first time we've actually had more than one guy who can dribble it more than a couple of times. It's actually kind of refreshing.''
Huggins said he anticipates moving the ball up the floor at a faster tempo due to the availability of more players.
"Because of sheer numbers a year ago, particularly with our post guys, we were trying to save energy, which we shouldn't have to do,'' Huggins said. "There were a lot of times we had to wait for Deniz to get down the floor.
"We don't want to do that now. We should be able to run harder in transition. We were just awful in transition a year ago. It's so hard to play when you don't get any easy baskets.''
One player Huggins can't count on right away is sophomore Volodymyr Gerun, who will sit out the first six games after the NCAA determined he played three games for a professional team in the Ukraine in 2011 prior to his enrollment at West Virginia.
The 6-foot-10 Gerun averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks at the under-18 European Championships last year.
Kilicli, a native of Turkey, can relate to Gerun, both in being homesick, having to sit out games and trying to learn the English language.
Kilicli was benched for the first 20 games of the 2009-10 season for playing on a Turkish team that included a professional player, which isn't allowed under NCAA rules.
"I'm trying to help him as much as I can from my experience when I was a freshman,'' Kilicli said of Gerun. "I was like, I've been there, and anytime you want to talk to me, you can talk to me.''
West Virginia opens the season Nov. 12 at No. 21 Gonzaga, which eliminated the Mountaineers from last season's NCAA tournament. The 77-54 loss was WVU's worst in the tournament since losing to Maryland by 25 in 1984.
he Mountaineers open Big 12 play Jan. 5 against Oklahoma.
West Virginia is picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12, and Murray is eager to turn heads in the new conference.
"We can prove everybody wrong this year,'' Murray said.