Players, Style Start To Mesh

Smiles were cracked when Bob Huggins addressed his style of coaching versus John Beilein's style of players with one simple comment.

"They're not that different," he said. "John has obviously schooled these players in fundamentals. And if a player can pass and dribble and shoot and pivot, he can probably handle a lot of other things."

There it was. There will be no tossing of talents, no worry as to if players are secure in scholarship. Alex Ruoff said it immediately made him feel more secure. And after the week that was – starting with an NIT championship that now seems seven years removed rather than seven days – it was reassuring to both parties that the Mountaineers will remain a team despite, and likely as much because of, a coach that preached the values of dedication and loyalty, then practiced none of it.

"We're just trying to let the younger guys know that we will stick together and whatever happens happens and we will get through it as a team," said center Jamie Smalligan, who with point guard Darris Nichols makes up the rising senior class. "I never expected it, but there are a lot of things that are out of your control. Even though we may not be guys that he has typically had, we are all players and we are all coachable, all smart and all willing to work hard. We're happy that coach Huggins is here and that we got such a high-caliber coach. He'll bring a lot of success very soon. It was the best candidate possible and a guy with a great record. We're going to help him get his 600th win next season."

It was Smalligan, seated alongside Alex Ruoff and Joe Alexander, who smiled most often during Huggins' introduction. All three nodded and laughed when Huggins, asked if his conversations with players had been good, said "Why wouldn't they be, what with my effervescent personality."

And with that, West Virginia's 21st coach began to build the relationships between he and his players. And with a staff that might not be filled for another month, it will be just Huggins and the returning players, head-to-head, getting a chance to build a foundation for a program that is now in much more secure hands regarding long-term stability and the ability to land major prospects.

"This is a job that a lot of people want right now," Smalligan said. "We won 27 games and only lost two seniors. It's not a rebuilding situation. Coach Huggins is excited to work with us. And our initial impression: We're excited. He is going to bring a lot of passion and he is excited to be here. That's what we want. If coach (John) Beilein did not want to coach us and wasn't excited to be here, that's fine. We don't want to play for a coach that doesn't want to be here and coach us. Coach Huggins is more than happy to be here. He is ready to teach us and we're ready to learn. We want someone who sticks around here, and that's exactly what he is."

Huggins, 590-211 in 25 seasons, will have one open scholarship with which to work. Current commit John Flowers, a three-star forward, remains solid to West Virginia, and no current players are planning to transfer despite rumors to the contrary. The departure of their former coach seems to have brought the team even closer, and given them an us-against-the-world outlook.

"We all said ‘With a coach like Bob Huggins here, I'm not leaving,'" Ruoff said. "I was star-struck. He is a legendary coach, one of the top coaches in the country. I am honored as a player to play for him. Success follows him, so I am excited to be here. Transitions are difficult. But I am very happy. The past couple nights I have not been able to sleep. It has been up and down."

Alexander noted that he heard rumors that he might be leaving. "To be dead honest, I never considered it," he said. "There were even some rumors that I was going to leave of coach Beilein stayed. None of that was true. We're all close and that helped a lot. We're a team, and this is something that really hurt this team. But the best thing we can do for the program is for everyone to stay and stick together. We were blunt about it. But it didn't take any convincing."

Alexander, ironically, might be among the best first for Huggins' flex offense and straight man-to-man defense. With his 6-8 height and leaping ability, he could slide right into the sets next year.

"It's a big relief," Alexander said of the new coach. "That's a player's biggest fear with a new coach. Is he going to kick me out of here? So to hear him say that was good. He runs a lot, and I am excited about that."

West Virginia held a team meeting on Wednesday, one day after Beilein announced his resignation. Ruoff said that during the meeting, every player said they would stay. He said it has become a close-knit unit, and that as a group, Huggins was the clear first choice. Arguably the hardest thing over the last 72 hours – apart from hearing that Beilein was indeed leaving after finally taking the fourth job he was rumored to have flirted with in five years – was watching the assistants clean out their offices. They may or may not be hired by Beilein, who has yet to make any decisions. Huggins will be able to bring in his own staff.

"That was really tough, tear-jerking," Ruoff said. "But I am happy coach is here. I am excited to play for him. He is a sensible coach and I know he will use the unique talents and players we have here. I have faith he will use that to the full advantage. We didn't know if it would be a guy with the same kind of offense, but we've got some good athletes on this team. Once I found out it was him, I was excited. I got a phone call from him last night. I probably sounded like an idiot. I can't believe it's going on. Right now, though, I am looking forward to stability emotionally."

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