MORGANTOWN - Bob Huggins patiently tried to answer all the questions thrown at him Monday before his West Virginia basketball team held its first official practice of the season.He would have had an easier time, of course, were there answers to many of those questions.Take his roster, for example. It includes just 11 scholarship players and the eligibility of two of those is in question."It's killing you, isn't it?'' Huggins cracked when the subject of just who might be eligible came up right off the bat.
Well, killing probably isn't the right word. Call it natural curiosity.OK, so Elijah Macon, it seems, can probably be written off for this season. He was a last-minute enrollee whose eligibility has not been settled by the NCAA. But even if he is declared eligible - and that doesn't sound likely - he has a wrist injury with which to deal.So should we simply write him off for one of those reasons or the other?"I'd think it would be way more [likely he doesn't play] than the other way,'' Huggins said.All right, so on to the other question mark.Jonathan Holton, the former Rhode Island player who was in junior college last year, was also a late enrollee. Very late. When West Virginia held its first practice Monday, Holton was supposed to be on the floor.Come the opener on Nov. 8 against Mount St. Mary's?"As of right now, no,'' Huggins said, but then leaving the door open a crack. "I think we'll have a final answer at the end of the week. But that's a guess.''Of course, without Macon and perhaps Holton, things get even more interesting than they already were for a team trying to remake itself after a rather brutal first season in the Big 12. Huggins would then have a roster that consists of five veterans - guards Eron Harris, Terry Henderson, Juwan Staten and Gary Browne and forward Kevin Noreen - and four new forwards. Brandon Watkins, Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian are freshmen, Remi Debo a junior college transfer.There's not a true center on the roster - even if those in question somehow manage to play - after Huggins got rid of Aaric Murray this summer."We don't have centers,'' Huggins said. "We had a center and it didn't work out very well.''
Then again, that doesn't seem to both Huggins much at all. In fact, it actually solves one of the philosophical problems West Virginia faced when it was thrust into the Big 12. In the Big East, strong center play was the norm. Teams like Louisville and Villanova go along without a big body in the middle - as did West Virginia during its Final Four season of 2010 - but for the most part the best teams had a big banger (think Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, Syracuse, etc.) and you had to have a counter to that.That's not the case as a general rule in the Big 12, so Huggins has tried to remake the roster. Goodbye to Deniz Kilicli. Hello to, well, just about all the newcomers."You go recruit a guy like Deniz because everybody in the Big East had one,'' Huggins said. "But looking back, when we were really good it was because Wellington Smith could drag people away from the basket.''So enter Dibo and Adrian, both of whom are 6-foot-7 or more and can shoot 3s. Enter Watkins and Williams, neither of whom are 3-point guys, but who can still step away from the basket. Ditto Noreen, whose biggest contributions last year seemed - although it might have been an anomaly - to be his completely unexpected, almost jaw-dropping 3s."They're capable of making shots,'' Huggins said of all of his big men. "Now, whether they do or whether they don't, I don't know. But they're very capable of making shots. And we made a conscious effort to bring guys in who could make shots.''If they can make shots, that will help as WVU tries to do something about that 13-19 season of a year ago. Just as significant, though, is whether they can defend shots. There was nothing more consistently infuriating to Huggins a year ago than his own inability to convey to his team the significance of playing aggressive, 40-minute defense. It came in spurts. Spurts don't get the job done.
So, are these guys he recruited - as well as the ones left over - capable of playing that kind of defense? Just as importantly, will they buy into the notion that it's important?"That remains to be seen,'' Huggins said. "I can't positively tell you yes or no. Two hours a week is kind of hard to judge.''That's what Huggins has had to work with his players up to this point, the NCAA's allowable maximum for pre-practice practice, so to speak. That changed with Monday's first official workout. Between now and Nov. 8, Huggins has 30 days of allowable practice to find out.Hopefully by then he'll have more illuminating answers.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.