Huggins is correct, of course. A check of the roster indicates WVU, in this age of some programs annually rolling out the Fab Five, isn’t truly what one would consider young. Its primary guards, Juwan Staten and the emerging Gary Browne, are seniors. Jonathan Holton is a junior, as is Jaysean Paige. And the vast majority of the backcourt in Devin Williams, Nate Adrian and Brandon Watkins all have a full season of play while averaging at least 10 minutes per contest. But that doesn’t make the roster tested in terms of the upcoming slate of games over the next 10 weeks.
Holton just finished his first baker’s dozen of games at this level. That includes Paige and redshirt freshman Elijah Macon as well. Add in freshmen Dax Miles, Jevon Carter and sophomore Tarik Phillip, and of the above mentioned – which will encompass the 11-man rotation of which Huggins will primarily rely – just two have more than a single season’s worth of league experience. More than half (six) don’t have any experience navigating a full conference schedule at all.
“You can talk to them, but it doesn’t really sink in,” Huggins said of the degree of difficulty. “But we haven’t traveled the way we traveled before. We went to Puerto Rico and that’s about it (in an effort to increase rest). I think when you think about how well we responded after playing late in New York (against NC State), I thought that (Wofford game) might have been as well as we’ve played. It’s the rgind, you know? It’s more than doing it once. You gotta do it every week. That’s the hard part.”
Starting on Saturday, when West Virginia travels to TCU for a 4 p.m. eastern tip. That will be followed by Monday’s contest at Texas Tech, which are the only consecutive Big 12 road games for the Mountaineers this season until the penultimate weekend of play, when WVU is at Baylor and Kansas before the regular season finale with Oklahoma State in the Coliseum. The conference has worked diligently with West Virginia in trying to limit the travel schedule as much as possible, and completing more than 20 percent of the league road games before school begins again was essentially a must.
Now, the focus turns to getting the younger players to grasp, and utilize, the concepts of rest on off days, proper nutrition, lifting during the season to at least maintain current strength and understanding when to push and when to back off a bit. Listen to your body, Browne says, and the rest – literally and figuratively – will take care of itself.
“When you have time to rest, especially now when we don’t have any class, rest,” Browne said. “I know (younger players) want to walk around and hang out, but now that the season has started, we need to make sure that we rest a lot because we have long flights. Sometimes I did (take that advice), sometimes I didn’t. But I made sure I got some rest. Even though we haven’t had class, it’s like we have. We’ve been waking up the last two, three weeks (for practices) at 8 a.m., 9 a.m.”
West Virginia played six games in December. It will match that mark by Jan. 24, and play eight during the month. The exact four-week block of February also includes eight games. That’s an average of one game every 3.4 days, as compared to the December average of one game every 5.2 days. Consider, too, that especially now, with a full court, 40-minutes of press style, West Virginia might need more total team rest than ever, even with greater depth and numbers played.
“We prepare for high energy,” Williams said. “It’s about us, and our energy level, usually when we have great energy, we play good games. We give that extra on defense and take people out of their stuff and what they want to do. Continue to give effort and watch film and stay in the gym and taking care of your body. That’s big, taking care of your body. We have another 18 games to go.”
The most significant difference between conference play and nonconference play, according to Huggins?
Familiarity,” he said. “You play the same people, particularly when you play twice a year. You kinda know what they are going to do, and they know what you are going to do. Players are more familiar with each other. I think particularly in this league, where it is a true champion – sometimes in these other leagues you don’t play a team at home for three years or whatever – I don’t know how you get a true champion.”
And familiarity breeds exact what they idiom says it does; The 12-1 Mountaineers, ranked 15th and 17th in the two major polls, cannot bank on a solid nonconference performance and begin to slack in Big 12 play, even with an RPI inside the top 20.
“It’s zero-zero,” Browne said. “We are starting all over again. It’s the Big 12 now. We did a good job in the nonconference, which should help us a lot. That was one of our main goals, but now we are starting Big 12. We gotta make sure we do the same thing we did in nonconference, or even better.”