MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At first, this seemed like an empty response from Bob Huggins. The West Virginia basketball coach had called the media to a news conference earlier this month and the media had asked him to somehow explain the number of players vanishing from his program.
“The only thing I can tell you — and I wish you would convey this as best as you possibly can to our fan base — is we’re going to do everything we can possibly do,” Huggins said.
There was no easy solution to a problem that’s become a plague across the country, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t trying. Huggins said he’d met with his staff “to try and figure out what else we can do,” and now it seems a loaded response is starting to show with what the Mountaineers are doing with this recruiting class and what they’ll do with the 2015 recruiting class.
“(Transferring has) been a topic of conversation in the NCAA for a number of years,” Huggins said. “And not all transfers are bad. I would say a majority of them are probably for the reason that they want to play. When you’ve got 13 guys and you can only trot five out there, obviously not all of them are going to play. I will say this: I think guys waiting their turn, I don’t think that happens as much anymore.”
Huggins himself transferred from Ohio to WVU in the pursuit of playing time, so he understands the obstacle as well as anyone. If a player at one position sees multiple players who are ahead of him at the same position, he has incentive to transfer. It can be an annual problem for schools that get to, or are forced to, sign a handful of players. If it’s a large handful, the problem is that much bigger.
So if the problem is congestion, the solution is to thin the crowd. There are only two ways to do that, and one is mostly unreasonable. A Division I school only gets 13 scholarships and rarely will a coach decided to leave one or more open just to prevent overcrowding.
“Do I want to?” Huggins said. “No. Absolutely I don’t want to.”
The other option is manage the crowd. It’s much more realistic and it’s in action at WVU.
The Mountaineers had 11 players on scholarship last season, and only nine were eligible to play. None of the 11 was a senior, so WVU added incoming freshmen Dax Miles and Jevon Carter.
Sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson transferred after the season, and junior Remi Dibo has apparently decided to return to France to play professionally, though that hasn’t been officially stated by either the player or the school. Huggins then had a 2014-15 roster with 10 players — Miles, Carter and redshirt Elijah Macon in the freshman class, Nate Adrian, Brandon Watkins and Devon Williams in the sophomore class, junior college transfer Jonathan Holton in the junior class and Gary Browne, Juwan Staten and Kevin Noreen in the senior class.
The Mountaineers were left with three open scholarships and the idea they had to be careful with how awarding each would affect future classes.
Say Huggins signed three more freshmen. He might have six seniors to replace in four years or he might have assembled a crowd of players that encourages a few to eventually transfer. Neither is ideal. He could have added three transfers and done so in a measured manner that considered if a Division I transfer has to sit out and whether a junior college transfer has two or three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Traditional two-year junior college transfers, as well as the majority of Division I transfers who move after their second seasons at a school, would join Holton in the junior class. Three-year transfers would join the crowded sophomore class.
What WVU has done and might still do doesn’t really complicate matters. Junior college signee Tarik Phillip has three seasons left, but he’s the only guard in the sophomore class. Junior college signee Jaysean Paige has two seasons left and the guard gives WVU two players in the junior class.
Most interesting is the decision for the final scholarship, which Huggins seems fated to award. Justin Martin, a postgraduate transfer from Xavier with one season left, will reportedly visit WVU early next month. Martin, who was two years ahead of Harris as Lawrence North High in Indianapolis, played his final prep season for Huggins ally Rodney Crawford at Mountain State Academy. The 6-foot-6 Martin averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds for the Musketeers last season.
If he joins, WVU has four seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen. The freshman class would have three guards and a forward, the sophomore class three forwards and a guard, the junior class a forward and a guard and the senior class two guards and two forwards.
A lot can and will happen before that cycle is complete, but Huggins can be balanced in the next recruiting class because things are aligned in a way WVU hasn’t seen in a while. Former coach John Beilein had five seniors in the 2005-06 season and signed seven freshmen. Two would transfer following their first season without playing for Huggins, but the other five graduated and Da’Sean Butler, Wellington Smith, Jonnie West, Cam Thoroughman and Joe Mazzulla were at the heart of the 2010 Final Four team.
Butler, Smith and West were done at the end of that season, and Devin Ebanks went pro with two years left. Huggins signed four players in the 2010 class, but only Noreen played for WVU. The three misses, the 2011 graduations of junior college transfer Casey Mitchell and Thoroughman and Mazzulla, who redshirted in their careers, and the transfer of Dan Jennings prompted a seven-player class with six freshmen a year later. The junior college transfer, Dominique Rutledge, made it through and the freshmen all transferred.
The problematic large classes of the past don’t seem to be part of the future.
“Ideally, that’s what you want,” Huggins said. “I don’t think you ever want a year with no scholarships and I don’t think you want a year with eight guys. The year we had (seven) guys, we had a slew of guys transfer. I don’t want that.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blog.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.