The Mountaineers, 26-9 a season ago while being bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, lost their best rebounder in Devin Williams and their leading scorer in Jaysean Paige. But the remainder of a solid nucleus returns, including the backcourt of Daxter Miles, Tarik Phillip and Jevon Carter, along with interior talents Elijah Macon, Esa Ahmad and Nathan Adrian, among others. Thus far, Huggins believes he has the pieces in place to exceed last season's accomplishments, though there's obvious issues with need addressed.
Tops among those is turnovers. West Virginia was proficient in forcing steals and garnering extra possessions via siphoning off errant passes. It totaled 343 steals, led by Carter's 59. But WVU managed, somehow, to turn the ball over 498 times, and only two players - Carter and Miles - had more steals than turnovers. It all amounted to nearly a possession gained and possession lost before the advantages in rebounding (WVU was almost plus-nine) were factored.
"Our ball security was as bad as it has been probably the whole time I have been here," Huggins said. "We just can't throw the ball away. We would steal the ball and then turn it back over. We were second in the country in turnovers forced, first in steals, and we turned it back over almost 16 times a game. It's all about possessions. It's possessions and trying to get shots per possession. We didn't take very good care of the ball."
A major factor in that was the poor passing display. The Mountaineers would routinely feed the post via a bounce pass that the receiving player was forced to gather at the feet, or an off-target entry too near the defender. The perimeter passing wasn't significantly better, with players struggling to distribute the ball when closely guarded, and properly utilize spacing to create lanes. West Virginia did tally 12 more assists than turnovers, but that numeric must improve without the surefire second-chance ability of Williams. The then-junior left a season early last year and after going undrafted by the NBA, is playing professionally in Melbourne, Australia.
"Better is the operative word," Huggins said of what he has seen during offseason workouts. "We are passing it a bit better. You put Nate in the line-up, Nate is a better passer than the other people we played there. J.C. and Dax and Tarik, they ought to be better. It's fast becoming a lost art to pass the basketball. The teams which can pass the ball are a lot more difficult to beat. They do more things. Teams have a whole bunch of guys they don't trust with the ball in their hands, which is good for us because we are going to make teams pass it from there as best we can.
"We end up recruiting guys from AAU and they don't pass in AAU. It's a whole lot different when somebody is up in you and you have to move somebody's hands and you can't throw it across your body. They throw it. They don't pass it. What I've told them is we are going to stop turning it over or we will be the best conditioned team in college basketball because we will be over on that treadmill. It's concentration. It's amazing when you start sending them to the treadmill how their concentration improves. It's concentration and passing the ball away from the defense."
West Virginia inked a three-player freshmen class which should couple nicely with a trio of redshirts to provide depth. Point guard Beetle Bolden, who was a fast-rising ball handler last summer before an ACL tear sidelined him for the season, has been cleared to practice without a knee brace. Huggins said the redshirt frosh is "still tentative" while mentally recovering from the injury, but that he has made cuts and jumps to put pressure on the joint without an issue. Fellow second-year players Lamont West and Logan Routt will aid in numbers at forward.
The true freshmen class of Maciej Bender, Sagaba Konate and Chase Harler is expected to contribute. Huggins called Konate the best shot blocker and perhaps best rebounder on the team. Harler is still several seasons away from reaching potential, but has shown the floor vision and handling ability Huggins desires. Bender, a 6-10, 240-pound smooth shooter from Warsaw, Poland has already become a team favorite in pick-up games for his stroke and pick-and-pop abilities.
"Maciej has a way to go with the language," Huggins said. "He speaks English pretty well. I'm not sure how much he understands it when you get to talking and terminology is different. We are talking fast and he is trying to process it. He's very analytical. He watches a lot. He is trying to figure it out. Sagaba is our best shot blocker and may be our best rebounder. Maciej makes shots. We need those guys. Lamont is a talented guy. He was young and needed to grow up physically. He needed to redshirt. I think those guys will make huge strides. We are gonna play 11 or 12 of them."
The coaching staff will also eye Macon to see exactly how much of Williams' 13-plus points and nine-plus rebounds he can offfset in addition to his averages of three boards and 4.5 points per game.
"I want to see him become more consistent," Huggins said. "He really works for awhile then takes a little time off. He needs to become more workmanlike and become more like Tarik and J.C. are. The scary thing is that this league has come down to last possessions a lot. You gotta get rebounds. That's probably one of the primary reasons Kansas has been so successful is they have guys who could go get hard rebounds. Dev could so that for us. Jon Holton could do that for us. We will have to have others step up.
"Elijah will have to realize the potential he has. Brandon (Watkins) will have to work. I think Sags can get hard rebounds. Dev would get a hard rebound and make a free throw. We wanted him at the line as much as anybody down the stretch. They are going to foul you right away and now you have to be able to make a free throw at the other end."
Fellow forward Esa Ahmad enters the season as arguably the player who made the most progression last year. Ahmad averaged less than five points and three rebounds as a freshman, but saw the proverbial light come during the postseason. The swingman figures to see his 18.1 minutes per game average increase significantly.
"His body is so much better," Huggins said. "His endurance is better. He's shooting it better. He's put a lot of time in."
West Virginia opens practice Oct. 2 with the Gold-Blue Debut slated for Oct. 13 in Wheeling, W.Va. The Mountaineers play WVU Tech in an exhibition in Beckley, W.Va. on Oct. 29 and open the season against Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 11 inside the Coliseum.null