Tournament Prep

West Virginia is jumping into a hotbed of competition with the Puerto Rico Tip-Off this weekend, but despite the wide-open nature of the tournament, head coach Bob Huggins believes it will be good for his team.

Huggins never has a problem with his team facing tough foes, but this year he's taking it to early heights never before seen at West Virginia. Even last year's Final Four squad had some early season breathers, with contests against Loyola and The Citadel before jumping into tournament play in California, and even then the Mountaineers got a break of sorts as a couple of favorites were upset in the early going.

This year, however, WVU figures to get tested much earlier. The Mountaineers have already defeated Horizon League favorite Oakland, and now have the potential of facing Top 25 teams in the Puerto Rico event.

"Carolina would be a favorite, and Vanderbilt, and Minnesota," Huggins said in response for an assessment of a tournament favorite. "I think if you asked the coaches, we'd probably get a vote too.

"It's good competition and it gets us away from here. I thought the California tournament was good for us last year. It puts you in a tournament atmosphere. I thought the competition was good, even though we didn't play anyone we thought we would play."

In last year's 76 Classic, WVU defeated Long Beach State, Texas A&M and Portland en route to the title. This year, the road will be tougher, with the aforementioned teams, as well as Nebraska, all posing significant challenges.

Huggins also likes the back-to-back games, as it mirrors what the team will see in post-season play -- including odd starting times.

"You play early games in NCAA and Big East tournament, so I think [playing at 11:30 a.m.] is good prep for us," he explained. "The way it shakes out, we haven't practiced a lot early in the morning. Practiced Sunday at 9:00 a.m. and I thought they were fine."

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While West Virginia lost three experienced veterans from last year's team, Huggins believes that even the limited experience some of the players received a year ago gives them a leg up. He hopes that will help them approach the three-games-in-four-days schedule in Puerto Rico without difficulty.

"We have ten experienced guys," Huggins noted. That would appear to include Kevin Jones, Joe Mazzulla, Truck Bryant, John Flowers, Casey Mitchell, Deniz Kilicli, Danny Jennings, Jonnie West, Cam Thoroughman, and Dalton Pepper. "We can also bring Kevin Noreen off the bench."

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After unleashing a sizzling shooting performance in the first half against Oakland, Huggins would seem to have found an answer to the scoring droughts that have plagued his teams over the past couple of seasons. He's not however, ready to declare his team a consistent threat to score 80 points each night.

"Shooting is a very inconsistent thing at any time," he observed. "That's why you have to be proficient in other areas. We're capable of making 20 threes. We have guys capable of shooting the ball. But we can't totally rely on that. We need to be able to score other ways."

Some of those "other ways" include second chance points that come from offensive rebounds. That was a staple of WVU's offense a year ago, but it's something that will require more consistent effort this year.

"We haven't rebounded the way we are capable of doing," Huggins said after reviewing video of WVU's first two games. "We're not getting to the spots we need to get to on a consistent basis. We have the ability. Kevin Jones set a school record for offensive rebounds last year, and Deniz showed he can do it. Danny can rebound, John Flowers can rebound. We jut have to do it."

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Huggins expects WVU's first-round foe to slow the tempo and utilize its big players.

"Davidson will try to make it a half-court game," he noted. "They will pack it in to make us make outside shots, and they run good offense. Their big guys are a large part of what they do, and they will try to throw it close. They do a lot of things. The will run motion, but they will screen it, curl it, fade it. They will do a lot of things you have to guard."


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