For months, West Virginia men's basketball coach Bob Huggins has been grinning from ear to ear when talking about his return home some 30 years after his playing career. More than six months after taking his dream job, Huggins can finally take the court for good on Friday night as head coach at his alma mater.
The 2007-08 Mountaineers return several key players from last season's NIT championship team. At the same time, schemes on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court will be much different from the backdoor cutting and 1-3-1 zone that became such a trademark of Mountaineer basketball in recent years.
With just under a month before the regular season tips off against Division II Arkansas-Monticello, Huggins and his staff must find a way to incorporate veteran players into brand new schemes.
"We're going to try to put them in a position where they can be successful," Huggins told reporters at the Coliseum on Friday afternoon. "That's what we're supposed to do."
It's not as though Huggins will be meeting his team for the first time tonight when West Virginia begins practice with "Mountaineer Madness." In recent weeks, he and his staff have had the opportunity to work with the team on a limited basis for a maximum of two hours each week. Most of those workouts, though, include just four players at any given time, per NCAA rules. Thus, the systems and schemes that will make up a bulk of West Virginia's attack this season have yet to be implemented to the entire team in one setting.
"When you have them two hours a week, it's kind of hard. For a better portion of that, we only had them in small groups. The best we could play was two on two," remarked Huggins. "There have been a lot of great one on one, maybe two on two players that weren't very good when you go five on five. There are some guys that weren't great one on one but five on five they were pretty good. It's kind of hard to answer questions about what guys can do individually when the honest to God's truth is I don't know."
One thing that Huggins does know is that the situation is what it is, and as head coach it is his job to make the most of it. When he came on board back in April, the Mountaineers had just one scholarship available for recruiting, which was later used on freshman guard Will Thomas. Returners such as senior point guard Darris Nichols, junior forward Joe Alexander, junior guard Alex Ruoff, and others should give the former National Coach of the Year a solid nucleus to build his first Mountaineer squad around.
Just one year ago, Huggins was taking over at Kansas State, which unlike West Virginia had not seen much success prior to his arrival. Asked to compare the state of the Wildcat program upon his arrival with these Mountaineers, Huggins was optimistic.
"I think we're more talented than that team," he said. "But halfway through the year, (Kansas State) got (five star recruit) Bill Walker, which made us a lot more talented. We have a couple of guys on this team that are extremely athletic. I think that everybody recognizes what a good athlete Joe Alexander is. Wellington Smith, I think, is an outstanding athlete. He can do some things athletically that not a whole lot of people can do."
That athleticism will play right into the hands of Huggins and his patented full-court, in-your-face style of defense. Couple that with an up-tempo offense, and the Mountaineers will be playing considerably faster than what fans in these parts have gotten used to over the past five years.
"We're just going to be so much more active defensively," he explained. "I just believe you have to be at the ball to make plays defensively, and I think we have some guys that can make plays when they get to the ball, so we're going to work really hard at getting to the ball."
Without question, there is a new sherriff in town. For several months, he's been making the rounds with the public at fundraisers and speaking engagments from Weirton to Welch. With all of that now in the past, it's time to get down to business.