Disaster over, time to look ahead
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - There is an argument to be made that questions regarding next season's West Virginia basketball team have been relevant for more than a month now.
After all, that was when, for all practical purposes, it became apparent that this year's Mountaineers were going nowhere.
But regardless of when the discussion could have begun, on Wednesday night West Virginia made it official. That's when the Mountaineers ended what can only be termed a disaster of a season with a seventh consecutive defeat. The last-second, 71-69 loss to Texas Tech in the opening game of the Big 12 tournament put to rest a 13-19 season, the school's worst in more than a decade and easily the worst in Bob Huggins' 31 years as a head coach.
"You don't want it to end, especially like this,'' freshman guard Eron Harris said. "But it's over and now it's time to start thinking about next year.''
Indeed. But what does next year hold?
Well, count on it being different than this season. There's no guarantee the results will be any different - there never is - but it's a pretty sure bet that the cast of characters will change. The Mountaineers have but three seniors who have used up their eligibility, but if those are the only three who aren't around when practice begins in October it will be a major upset.
Certainly at the top of the list of questions is that of junior center Aaric Murray. Largely a disappointment this season and a frequent target of fan derision, Murray was once considered a one-and-done player for the Mountaineers. He was to showcase his talents in one season after transferring from LaSalle and then it was off to the NBA.
Well, that won't happen. Murray averaged less than nine points and six rebounds and started only 11 of 32 games. His NBA stock is not high. He also seemed, at times, disinterested and moody.
But if Murray doesn't return for his final year of eligibility, it won't be because he doesn't want to. At least that's what he said after one of his more well-rounded games of the season in Wednesday's loss - 11 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal. And he did virtually all of that in 16 second-half minutes.
"I definitely want to come back,'' Murray said afterward. "I want to use this offseason to prepare better and a lot harder than I did in past offseasons.
"I want to come back. The only reason why I won't be back is if coach don't let me come back. That's it.''
What Huggins has in mind for Murray isn't quite clear, of course. The 6-foot-11 junior was, at times, as dominating on the floor as he was predicted to be. Those were generally short stretches, however, which is something he will have to address if he does return.
"I think that comes with the working hard part,'' Murray said. "I think [the inability to do it consistently was] like the basketball gods [telling me] I didn't work hard enough to be consistent every day. That's why I have to make sure I work hard in this offseason so I can be consistent every day and help my team win.''
Whether Murray returns, however, is just one of the questions to be answered in the coming months.
Again, the Mountaineers lose just three seniors from this team, but all played varying degrees of a major role, at least late in the season. Deniz Kilicli leaves after an up-and-down four years in which he was almost always in the rotation, if not an integral part of the Mountaineer game plan. Dominique Rutledge and Matt Humphrey disappeared at times for long stretches on the bench - Rutledge during his two seasons after junior college and Humphrey in his one as a post-graduate transfer - but were in the mix late in the season.
Those won't be the only departures, though. Huggins has already signed four players for next season and if all four arrive - academics or other issues could always stand in the way - the Mountaineers will be one over the NCAA limit of 13 scholarship players.
Huggins has hinted - in fact, he's outright said - that his recruiting isn't over. It will be a surprise if he doesn't sign more players this spring, and for everyone he signs and gets into school it means someone else will have to go.
Some of that, of course, will be taken care of through natural attrition. Aaron Brown, for instance, played in only 17 games and scored just 21 points after playing in all 32 as a freshman and scoring 134 points. Keaton Miles started 30 games as a freshman, but for most of the Big 12 season seldom got off the bench, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game through December and then less than six minutes after that. Gary Browne's minutes declined significantly in the last five games and Volodymyr Gerun might be better suited to a lower division of play.
There could also be surprise departures for personal reasons. And, of course, Huggins could simply encourage another player or two to pursue a different path.
The four players Huggins has already signed are all bigs of one degree or another, small forwards or power forwards - 6-foot-9 Elijah Macon, 6-9 Brandon Watkins, 6-8 Devin Williams and 6-8 Nathan Adrian.
Add to that group the return of 6-10 junior-to-be Kevin Noreen and Murray and West Virginia will have some frontcourt potential. In the backcourt, point guards Juwan Staten and Jabarie Hinds and shooting guards Harris and Terry Henderson should all return.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.