The Mountaineers, under first-year head coach Bob Huggins, will be unveiled at Full Throttle on Friday at 9 p.m., with a Mountaineer Madness that mimics past Midnight Madnesses held by various basketball teams to kickoff new seasons. One of the easiest new features to spot will be that of the defense, which will rely much more on man-to-man than the zones employed by former coach John Beilein. WVU has worked on its man sets and "getting up into" offensive players, Huggins' term for attacking the ball handler and forcing him off drives and screens.
Bigger, stronger, more athletic bodies are needed for that, and the developments are coming. Alex Ruoff, one of three returning starts, is up to 220 pounds after playing at 205 last season. At 6-6, that is certainly not heavy, but it's a much-needed gain. Point guard Darris Nichols and forward Joe Alexander are also noticeably thicker, and along with the physical transition, Huggins has began a mental one as well. In the limited drills – players can work out four at a time until Oct. 12 – no fouls are called in the two-on-two pickup games unless they are blatant. It encourages physical play and tight man defense, two keys to a Huggins-coached team.
"I am excited," said Ruoff, who averaged 10.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game last year. "A lot of things are new. We have been working real hard on defense. Coach Huggins is a big defensive coach. It has made pickup games a lot more physical. We no longer call fouls and it has done wonders for people's games. There are a couple players who have really excelled. I think a lot of people will be shocked to see the new games."
West Virginia's men's and women's teams will hold scrimmages to showcase their new styles and talent. The women's team, which returns a school-record seven seniors and all five starters along with All-American Meg Bulger, will also hold a two-ball competition. The men will hold a dunk contest, and there will be a laser light show and other fan enticements. The scrimmages will obviously reveal a bit more than any other aspect, and one area to watch is around the basket. Huggins wants players to finish better, and instead of the spread out attack featured under the last staff, this one gets bodies to the rim and continually focuses on inside-out play as opposed to outside-in. The idea, Huggins has said, is to focus on three areas that, unlike shooting, never abandon teams: defense, physical conditioning and rebounding.
"I think we lost a couple games last year when we were out-toughed," Ruoff said. "I don't think that will happen this year. That's one of the reasons we don't call fouls, to get stronger around the basket. It's the best of both worlds."
By that, Ruoff meant that West Virginia still has its outside shooting ability – the junior said nobody's shot was affected by the extra weight – along with being able to play better inside. The Mountaineers took 989 three-pointers last year, the third straight season it broke its school record, and scored 1,113 of its 2,610 points on treys. No Huggins team has ever taken nearly that many, and very rarely are his squads outrebounded, as WVU was by 124 last year, or nearly four per game in its 27-9, NIT championship season.
What's also plainly clear is that the team appears more jovial than it ever has. That is a product of the closeness players feel with Huggins as opposed to the distance Beilein kept between himself, his staff and his team. The more workmanlike, professional approach was effective, but it failed to yield as much of a bond as Huggins seems to already have. Nichols has said that the coaches are much easier with which to talk, and Ruoff and Nichols traded barbs at each other during interviews.
"Darris has never been able to shoot," Ruoff said. "That's the only person I can think of that can't."
Nichols: I am shooting them at 35-feet now. "I must have missed those practices," said Ruoff. "Hey, out of the 25 to 30 dunks that I can do, I have been trying to narrow it down and trying to figure out what I am going to do for the fans. I don't know if they will let me in the dunk contest. I don't know if it would even be fair. I might sit this one out. Put the tennis ball out there, and I can do some wonders."
The joking, perhaps a plus off the court, stops when West Virginia gets on it. The team has been very serious in the limited drills, and its conditioning has improved. Along with the physical man play, WVU has worked to install the basics of some zone sets, including a 2-3 and a 1-1-3 that plays similarly to a 1-3-1 with more emphasis on stopping corner and wing shots and limiting ball movement inside.
"We will definitely play some zone," Ruoff said. "But I think our strength will be man. With only being able to workout four players at a time it is kind of hard to do much. The defensive drills that we did worked on one-on-one offense at the same time. We have improved on both areas. We are still going to come at you with the three-ball as well as the transition game. We have some staggered screens and things like that."