That observation isn't meant to diminish West Virginia's returning players, or its incoming class to date of six signees and one invited walk-on. It's simply to point out the fact that if Huggins faced a rebuilding job a year ago, he's now confronting a makeover on par with the 1984 restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Some building blocks and one solid foundation piece remain, but Huggins will have to pull off one of the biggest renovation projects of his career to keep West Virginia in the upper echelon of the Big East conference.
To quickly recap the losses, the Mountaineers bid farewell to their best two shooters – Casey Mitchell and Jonnie West. Joe Mazzulla, who single-handedly created the offense over the last one-third of the season departs, taking with him a wealth of knowledge and coach on the floor status. West Virginia also says adieu to John Flowers, its most athletic rebounder and defender – the only player capable of consistently blocking shots from off the ball and jumping over opponents to snare rebounds. And last, but certainly not least, it loses Cam Thoroughman, the ultimate glue guy and team player who sacrificed any notions of glory for a thankless role in the lane, battling bigger opponents on a nightly basis. Thoroughman's knowledge of the offense and passing ability will also be sorely missed – along with Mazzulla, he was the best player on the court in those two phases.
For any team, that's a lot to replace. For a squad that has just one rising sophomore – and one that played just 39 minutes before sitting out the rest of the season – the challenge is even more difficult. It might be one of the biggest Huggins has faced in his career. So just what does he have to work with, and what does WVU have to get from its returnees and newcomers to retain its status in the league? A position-by-position breakdown gives an idea of the work to be done. As always, keep in mind that players can perform at multiple positions, and that WVU can certainly field teams that don't follow these positions to the letter.
Newcomers: Pat Forsythe
WVU will have better height on the blocks next year with Noreen's return from injury and Forsythe's move to Morgantown, but what will the productivity be like? Kilicli resembles a yo-yo as he was often jerked from games for defensive lapses almost as quickly as he entered. Offensively, he was the definition of inconsistent, scoring in double figures eight times but tallying four points or fewer on 15 occasions. Defensively, he has a long way to go in terms of understanding the game and making instinctive moves, while his pace on offense has to pick up as well.
Noreen showed flashes of good understanding in his seven games before knee surgery ended his season. He passed the ball well, and didn't get lost in the offense. However, there's a long way to go from outings against VMI and American to competing on a night-in and night-out basis in the Big East. Noreen returned to practice a couple of weeks ago, but will have to put in a lot of off-season work to make up for lost conditioning time.
Forsythe, who shows excellent offensive skills in high school, suffered a broken bone in his ankle last month, which ended his high school career. At a slender 215 pounds, will he be able to provide rebounding and defensive help in the most rugged conference in the nation?
ANALYSIS: Having three potential post players is good. But all three are very short on experience compared to others of their age and class standing. The player that can perform most consistently on both ends will be in position to grab the most minutes, but the Mountaineers will desperately need rebounding from this position to compensate for losses at other spots.
Returnees: Kevin Jones
Jones, of course, is looking at the potential of a pro career, and could elect to participate in the NBA Draft. The potential for labor strife and a lockout or a strike is just as possible in that league as it is in the NFL, so that could be a potential push for his return. If he does, he will clearly be in a leadership position on this team, and will have no choice but to accept that role if the Mountaineers are to be successful. Jones isn't likely to add much more size or jumping ability to his game, so he will have to continue to be a savvy player who works hard and does everything right to score points and get rebounds.
McCune is a player with some length who can hopefully take up some of the slack for the departed Flowers. He averages a double double in high school, and can play at the high post or on the wing, and will also hopefully be able to provide more offense to counterbalance that of Jones. His aggressiveness has improved, and he'll need every bit of that to contend for playing time.
Rutledge, a junior college player who did not participate in basketball this year, has also worked to widen his game and increase his range from the post to the mid-range. He might initially be more help on defense, where he can reportedly defend shooting guards and all types of forwards, and he has a more mature body than any of the incoming freshmen.
ANALYSIS: The numbers are o.k. if Jones returns, but behind him the Mountaineer coaching staff is looking at two players with zero college minutes. Jones himself will have to be more assertive and aggressive, and stand his ground more firmly on defense. He'll also have to help tutor a pair of players that will have to help with minutes off the bench. And if Jones leaves? That means a good bit of on the job training for at least one, and probably both, of these freshmen.
Returnees: Dalton Pepper
Depending on the lineup on the floor, Pepper and Brown could play at the two guard, and may well do so given West Virginia's lack of numbers in the backcourt. But for our purposes, we'll look at them as threes in this evaluation.
Pepper had several "wow" moments this year, such as his rebound dunk at Louisville and his three steals in 45 seconds against Clemson in the NCAA tournament. Just as often, however, the quietest Mountaineer has been invisible on the court. Pepper has surprising jumping ability, but didn't always take advantage of openings on the offensive end. He'll have to break out of that shell with a vengeance next fall, as WVU will need scoring help.
Brown is a defensive stopper, and may assume the role of lockdown defender in future seasons. Whether he's able to perform that job this year remains to be seen, but the Mountaineers will definitely have playing time available for freshmen that meet Huggins' standards for defensive play. Miles is more of a scoring threat, but will need to build up a slender body to absorb the rigors of college play. He's very aggressive, however,and won't hesitate to take the ball to the basket – something WVU sorely lacked from the forward position this year.
ANALYSIS: Can Pepper ramp up his offensive play and make his outside shot a more reliable weapon? Can Brown help offensively? Will Miles be strong enough to stand up to the physical defense he'll see in league play? This, like center, is a position full of questions. The talent appears to be there, but developing it rapidly will be the challenge. Pepper has to move into a leading role as well – but will his reticent personality allow him to do so?
Returnees: Truck Bryant
Bryant, along with Jones, are the two proven performers returning in 2011-12, but he will need to cut down on turnovers and improve his decision-making so that West Virginia's offense doesn't stall before it gets started. Developing a pull up shot in the lane would be a nice addition to his game, but he'll also have to get the bevy of newcomers into the right spots on the floor as they learn their positions. Mazzulla and Thoroughman handled that duty with skill this year – can Bryant and Jones do the same?
Hinds is the best candidate for early playing time – and perhaps lots of it – next winter. The most highly-rated of West Virginia's recruits, he is the only other option West Virginia has at point, so unless he flames out, he's going to play. The level at which he performs will be the key – he's so slender that it will not be hard to bump him off the ball, and his defense will be tested early by the multitudes of talented Big East guards.
Dickerson, who has committed to walk on for his initial season, is being brought in to shoot. In the best of all worlds, he might be able to help in spot duty against zones and other sagging defenses. However, expecting him to replace Casey Mitchell and Jonnie West right of the bat is unrealistic.
ANALYSIS: The numbers are short – an injury or other unavailability for either Bryant or Hinds would be devastating. However, the potential is there. The duo could play together at times, but more likely would spell each other as the Mountaineers try to develop bigger lineups for the future.
There are lots of holes to fill, and lots of questions to answer, as Huggins heads into his fifth season at the head of his alma mater. Many of those have been itemized above, but here are a couple more items to consider:
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Other numbers that must improve: