Responding To The Challenge

Formerly offensive-minded West Virginia has turned to its defense in the initial practice sessions, unveiling man and zone looks designed to keep the ball away from the basket, and foes off the boards.

New head coach Bob Huggins began installing his pressure man and 2-3 and 1-1-3 zones. WVU expects to play mainly man, but will switch into the zones on occasion, both to test opponents and give itself rest if needed. The Mountaineers, who went 27-9 last season and won the NIT with a cutting, three-point offense and a 1-3-1 zone, have responded extraordinarily well over the first two practice periods.

"I thought their enthusiasm was terrific," Huggins said. "It's a lot more fun when everyone is enthusiastic about playing. They have, for two days, been terrific. We'll see how it goes the rest of the week. They have picked things up really well. I think we are making a lot of progress. I haven't had any disappointments at all. I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly they picked things up. I think they really have learned very quickly. We just have to get more depth. I think everybody realizes the five or six guys who have played a bunch. We have to get more guys that can be effective for us."

The "five or six" Huggins refers to are point guards Darris Nichols and Joe Mazzulla and forwards Alex Ruoff, Wellington Smith and Da'Sean Butler. Freshmen Will Thomas and John Flowers are also expected to contribute. Flowers, Huggins has noted, is especially athletic and could help provide better on-ball defense. With the initial practices showcasing physicality, the new staff is beginning to find what players can perform, and which ones are willing to fight through the fatigue caused by non-stop running and pace for a full three hours. Former head coach John Beilein's practices were no longer than 90 minutes to two hours.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," Huggins said of developing his style. "We have to get really sound in the half court. Then, once we get sound at half court, we are planning on extending it. It's all a matter of habit. It's doing things a bunch of times so you remember what you're doing. As long as they continue with the same kind of enthusiasm, it's fine. I think everybody has had fun. I know we as coaches have had fun coaching them and I think they have had a good time learning and playing."

Huggins noted that he will give players more freedom to create within his motion offense. WVU has very limited in Beilein's sets, which demanded precision and the ability to essentially outthink the opposing team. Huggins will allow the players to make plays and use all their abilities to help the team. Outside of that, the 25-year coach does not try to harness players, or fit them into any one style. His former teams have been both inside and outside based, though all played solid fundamentally, were physical on defense and attacked within the rebounding game.

"It's still basketball," Huggins said, "but they are going to have a little more freedom than they did. We are going to run more of a motion deal that gives them more freedom. You have to have some rules, or otherwise it turns into chaos. They have been good, really good. I don't have anything negative to say at all (though) we do have to rebound better. We have not spent a lot of time on that. We have talked about it. We have not drilled it. They really have to improve on that.

"I have never been fortunate enough to have guys that fit a system. We have to play according to what they do. Our responsibility is to give them the best chance to win. I think your team gets better two ways. Naturally, your team gets better when you are proficient at running your offense and you are very sound defensively. The other way you get better is if your players get better. We want to spend a lot of time trying to help them at least get better and be able to do more things and in the same sense be able to still do the things they already do well. I think being sound at the defensive end gives you a chance to win."

Huggins said practice tape will be increasingly important as the Mountaineers continue to develop within their new schemes. Of now, basic fundamentals are overshadowing finite details, and thus tape is not as valuable. Huggins said he thought that if "they were not running into each other right now there would probably be something wrong."

The coach wasn't as sure about the players' insistence that practices, all closed to the general public and media, have been physical.

"That's a matter of opinion," he said. "It hasn't been all that physical yet. We are going to be more physical, but it has not been all that bad yet."


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