Huggins Previews Team, Tip-Off

Bob Huggins likes to tell people the last time West Virginia returned its best player and added athleticism and talent it went to the Final Four.

“That’s what we’d really like to get done (this year),” Huggins said. “The guys we brought in we think are able to help us. The battle is to make sure they fill the rolls you want them to fill and not the roles they want to fill. And I think this group has been a whole lot more receptive than guys in the past.”

Huggins, sans a trio of shooters – and perhaps some distractions – after offseason transfers, has returned focus to the defensive, rebounding style that gained him the majority of his 739 career victories. With a nucleus of centerpiece Juwan Staten, guard Gary Browne and forward Devin Williams, along with frontcourt length in Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton, Huggins has infused quickness and explosion with Dax Miles, Jevon Carter, Jaysean Paige, and Tarik Phillip, among others. WVU has also retained some of its outside ability with Nathan Adrian, as well as an improved three-point stroke from Staten.

So the depth, and perhaps potential, is evident. The Mountaineers had six players in double figures, and nine who scored eight or more points, in a 109-60 exhibition win over Shepherd. And while competition level must be considered – Huggins admitted a closed scrimmage against Ohio State didn’t unfold in a similar manner – just a simple eye test over the 40 minutes this far available shows far better raw physical ability. Add in that West Virginia’s players seem eager to embrace the roles assigned, and WVU seems in a far better place to build than it was at any time last season, when selfish player and coach-player clashes derailed progress.

“I felt that way last year,” Huggins said of his team lacking cohesiveness and togetherness, both on and off the floor. “I don’t think year. Our guys are hanging out together. They leave practice together. Rarely do you see just one of them. Our guys have been against the trend. … Everything has been good. I think they are a good bunch of guys. They love to play and love being in the gym. We have had really good practices. They play harder than what we have played in the past. We are embracing rebounding the ball and defending better than we have in the past.

“Devin Williams has been good. Juwan has been good. Gary has been good. He has led us with his work ethic. I think we have a good core and they’ve done a good job of keeping us organized. I think our other guys who have been around have done a good job of fitting in. Our new guys have started to pick things up quickly.”

West Virginia opens with Monmouth and Lafayette this Friday and Sunday, respectively, before playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan inside the Coliseo Roberto Clemente. WVU faces George Mason in the Nov. 20 opener, then either New Mexico or Boston College the next day in the ESPN-sponsored event. The third round game takes place after a Nov. 22 off day. This marks the Mountaineers’ second time playing in the event during Huggins’ tenure; WVU finished second to Minnesota in 2010 on the way to a 21-12 season and an NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky.

“We’d like to win this time,” Huggins said. “I think (the format is) better than the three straight days. I think it’s better for the coaches, better for the players, better for the fans. I think the fans get to see a bit better basketball. I have great respect for (New Mexico and Boston College). I think they are two (teams) who are very solid, the teams are fundamental and they don’t beat themselves. … It’s good to find out who you are. It’s good when you play a couple different programs and different philosophies, it shows you where you are.”

Huggins noted that Browne, a senior guard, is from San Juan. Browne moved to Florida for his senior prep season and played at Arlington Country Day school in Jacksonville, where he averaged 11.6 points, 7.5 assists and four steals in leading the team to a 23-2 record and No. 16 finish nationally according to USA Today. Browne led his high school to the national championship and was the Puerto Rico Player of the Year while at St. Francis School in Carolina for his sophomore and junior seasons. He averaged 11.8 points per game for Puerto Rico at the 2010 FIBA U18 championship in San Antonio and has played on the Puerto Rico national team since he was 14 years old.

“He’s looking forward to going home,” said Huggins, who has made a habit of trying to get at least one game near the home of each of his players at some point in their WVU career. “We changed the event; were supposed to go next year but we changed the event so we could go this year and get him home. I know he’s looking forward to going.

“Because of the way we travel after the first of the year, we don’t want to go real far. We are going to go back to Vegas. I think it’s exposure, which these ESPN tournaments give you. It’s early in the year when the real basketball fans want to watch basketball. Places where your fans want to go. It’s tough for us because football season is still going on. Our people certainly like going to Puerto Rico and Las Vegas. They like going into New York.”

Note: Today is National Signing Day for the early period in college basketball. West Virginia has retained a scholarship, and will not award it for the very near future. Huggins explained that the coaching staff is “looking, we have some guys. I think what has happened recently with guys declaring early for draft, you want to see where you need help. We have held one on purpose to maybe see where we need help and make sure we have a scholarship available to help us.”

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