"There were years when we could shoot it, so we spread it out," Huggins said. "There were years when we couldn't, and so we had to do something else."
Huggins thinks his lineup can shoot it. He has noted that center Jamie Smalligan can be an outside and inside player. Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols still have the green light on a good-look three, Nichols hitting them with near alarming accuracy, forming that now-known vertical, rightly-turned V with the body, arms and legs outstretched toward the rim with the midsection back and away. But other skills are being polished as well. The Friday practice period was dominated by interior work. Get to the rim. Explode by the defender. It's maximizing the chances one will make the shot. Get an open look and take it. But if it's not there, create. Use your raw ability, earn that scholarship money. Attack, attack, attack.
Guards and forwards crossed over at the three-point line, then picked up the dribble and got to the rim with just one added step. The coaching staff upped the ante of the wing drill with a dribble to the interior through the legs, then a crossover to the outside hand to get the defender off balance; explosion to the basket followed. Centers and forwards tightly rolled off screens, hands outstretched and ready for the ball. A drop step and dunk finished the series of moves. Much of the drills were inside, around the hoop. A body fake outside, a cut inside and a catch-and-finish. Student managers pounded players with pads, trying to create more space between them and the basket. Smalligan, Wellington Smith, Jacob Green, Joe Alexander and others fought off the body-up, stayed low for leverage and got the ball on the block, sealing off the defense.
It's not that the outside game has been abandoned. Huggins knows the players can shoot. The mindset is to add to those tools. What's lacking? Toughness inside, a desire to scrap and drive to the hole. So the chain's weakest link is improved. That's the Huggins approach: Become the best all around player you can be, so when we need an aspect of play, it's there.
The first-year WVU coach noted the team's lack of strength and has worked with head basketball strength and conditioning coach Jeff Giosi to radically change both the strength and the conditioning. One drill focusing on opportunistic offense had players rebounding, outletting quickly, then finding a player running the length of the floor for a quick lay-in. The ball was rebounded by another, outletted accordingly and fed to another player to finish. It demanded conditioning, communication (which player was running, who was being the pivot man for the catch-and-pass) and quickness. The idea was 27 lay-ups in two minutes. The Lakers, Huggins told players, had to make 32. West Virginia got as close as 24, that on their second attempt.
"We're working," Smalligan said. "We run a lot. The conditioning is there. But we're really a lot stronger now than we were. We are hitting the weights. Joe Alexander, that's they guy you'll notice is much bigger."
Nichols seems to be carrying a few extra pounds on his upper body. His arms, along with Ruoff's, are bigger, and both players are using it for everything from driving to battling for rebounds. Wellington Smith seems very comfortable with the new, less structured style of play, showing aggressiveness. Da'Sean Butler has embraced the change immediately, finishing in a variety of styles around the basket. He suddenly stops and lays a hoop in. He dunks. He spins for a finish with the off hand, then on the next trip hesitates for a second before driving by and laying one in high off the board with the outside hand.
Players scrap for rebounds, even after clear fouls are committed. Balls are batted, bodies fly to the floor. Every loose ball is a gem. And then a tap out beyond the arc. Nichols scoops it up and cans a trey. That's the best look at the time. He's not forced to drive. An approach: Have all the tools. Be able to select from then in given circumstances. Not simply a style, or a set idea of play. The lone hard and fast rules are to protect the ball, pass with the hand toward the teammate and play tough offense and tougher defense. Be opportunistic and intelligent and play fast, but don't hurry.
When an offense is finally setup, freedom and creativity still reign.
"When we pass the ball, there are several things we can do," Huggins says. "We can cut to the basket. Never a bad idea. We can go set a screen for someone else. We can set a ball screen. We can cut behind and go get the ball again. What I don't ant is the pass-and-stand. Hate that. You can't pass it and stand there. Move without the ball."
Nichols passes to Ruoff on the right wing. In former head coach John Beilein's system, the next step is to cut through the wing, opposite Ruoff and around near the corner before flaring back out to the three-point arc. Other players moved like chess pieces. There were reads, but always within a given set of guidelines. It worked. Suddenly, more often than not, an open look appeared. Know what happens when Nichols passes it to Ruoff under Huggins. No. Neither does anybody else until Nichols himself makes a read and reacts, being a basketball player. Then the other three players fill in the areas closest to the ball, or make their own reads and reactions. Something opens on defense and a player makes a pay. Amazingly simple, but not undemanding. It provides for all the opportunities with fewer of the hindrances.
The initial hunch is that there won't be as many open three-pointers. But there will be a freer flow to the game and action; basketball players playing basketball. It reads a bit like a Zen ideal, something so fundamentally basic it seems primitive or effortless – until its tried.
"A good player," Huggins said, "is one who can adjust." A good coach is the same.
Note: Huggins held his second session of practices with his squad this week as NCAA rules allowed the coaching staff to insert prep prospects, like Tucker County's Eric Wamsley and players from Martinsburg and Bridgeport, among their current players during team camp dates. That was a change from last year, when the NCAA allowed prospects to play on one team. West Virginia called it the Red Oxen. That practice has been outlawed for this year.