Early Outlook

West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins did everything he could to purge his team of the selfishness, bad attitudes and lack of commitment that wrecked last season. Will that be enough to make this year's team competitive?

As last season wore on, it became apparent that there were fundamental issues with Huggins' squad. Calling it a "team" probably isn't appropriate, as the word implies a unified group working toward a common goal. Huggins knew what the problem was, but was unable to fix it, and as a result the season spiraled down the drain.

To correct the problem, a three-pronged approach was used. Graduation was the first, as those whose eligibility expired moved out. Evaluations of play and the potential for future playing time was the second, as transfers and departures also removed some trouble spots. Finally, a large six-man recruiting class was brought in to fill the void, consisting of players that won't, at least in Huggins' view, repeat the problems of a season ago.

Initially, all three steps appeared to be successful, but the third is now at least somewhat in doubt, due to the eligibility and injury problems dogging Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton, a pair of the incoming recruits who were being counted on to help bolster the front line. While that doesn't mean the teardown and rebuild of the team is going to be unsuccessful, it does leave WVU with a very thin roster and little room for maneuvering during the upcoming season.

It's not all bad news, however. The attitude adjustment could go a long way in making the Mountaineers competitive, and the addition of a couple of players who can also make shots from the perimeter could help WVU get over the hump that was just a bit too large in several games a year ago.

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In the backcourt, the story to be defined is one of addition by subtraction. While there are no newcomers at the traditional guard positions, the growth of Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, as well as the grittiness of Gary Browne, are the hoped-for foundations on which backcourt play will be established. Browne's effort has never been questioned, and if he can build on his role as a defensive stopper and add some improved decision-making to his game, he can help eliminate many of the fractures that existed on last year's team. Harris and Henderson, now sophomores, are better positioned to have a voice on the team, and shouldn't be marginalized, as they were last year. Their three-point shooting was excellent for freshmen, and they'll need to continue at last year's rate.

That leaves Juwan Staten, who was a mystery for much of the season. It's clear he has the ability, but he was also just as clearly affected by the overall mood of last year's team. Staten has to buy in to Huggins' approach this season, and he can't be concerned about statistics, shot chances or the like. If his ballhandling and decision-making improve, WVU should be able to make do with a four-man rotation in the backcourt.

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The frontcourt is an entirely different matter. There's just Kevin Noreen left to build around, and while that's a good foundation, it's also a very thin one in terms of numbers. All of West Virginia's recruiting class was dedicated to helping rebuild the wing and post positions, and had all six been eligible and ready to go the picture would have been much better. With a full complement of seven players to choose from, injury or slumps would not be a great concern, but with both Macon and Holton apparently out for the year (Holton still has the slimmest of chances to play, but it doesn't look good), then WVU needs contributions from all of its newcomers.

Inside, Devin Williams is a workhouse rebounder who figures to play a lot. He doesn't wander away from the hoop and try to do things he shouldn't – instead, he works the lane and blocks and heads to the boards every time the ball goes up. Remi Dibo and Nathan Adrian give the Mountaineers some interesting combinations – Dibo can score from a variety of ranges, and Adrian has clearly worked at transforming his body while refining his already good shooting touch. Brandon Watkins isn't as polished as the other newcomers, but he might have the ability to help defensively, especially as a shot blocker, in some situations. Noreen also shouldn't be overlooked, as he has worked to regain the shooting touch he showed as a high schooler. His leadership abilities are also invaluable, and if his teammates follow his work ethic, that could be worth a couple of extra wins.

The problem, obviously, is one of depth. WVU could weather one player getting in foul trouble or an occasional absence in the backcourt, but a long-term injury or repeated underperformance from anyone in the quartet will be difficult to overcome. It's even tougher up front, where five players will have to pool their efforts to give WVU hope against the athletic front lines in the Big 12. With that in mind, it won't be a surprise to see WVU go with a "three-guard" offense at times, depending on the situation and match-ups. That, of course, could affect West Virginia's ability to rebound, especially against teams that put three or four wing or forward types on the floor.

Given the personnel shortages (WVU also has two open scholarships on this year's team that it did not fill), the Mountaineers enter the season at somewhat of a disadvantage. While it's true that Huggins typically hasn't played rotations greater in number than eight or nine, the presence of just nine scholarship players on the roster leaves next to no margin for error or injury. That issue, though, could be minimized if this team hangs together and works like a Huggins team is expected to. Signs of that appear positive, but the proof of that will only be known when the grind of the season is truly underway.


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