Making It Work

West Virginia senior center Jamie Smalligan may not be the quintessential Bob Huggins big man in the mold of Kenyon Martin, Danny Fortson, or Corie Blount.

However the fact remains that Smalligan is, in fact, West Virginia's biggest body, with three years of college basketball experience to boot. On a team somewhat devoid of height, girth, and experience in the front court, the play of the Grand Rapids product this season could go a long way in determining on-court success for Huggins's first team in Morgantown.

With apologies to the Beatles, Smalligan has certainly taken the long and winding road to his senior season of collegiate basketball at West Virginia. The big man began his career at Butler, but after two seasons at Hinkle Fieldhouse, decided to transfer to West Virginia of the Big East. Then-head coach John Beilein's ability for developing shooting centers into college basketball superstarts (i.e. Kevin Pittsnogle) had Smalligan and Mountaineer fans alike envisioning a continued tradition of excellence with larger than life shooters.

Of course we all know that Beilein is no longer in Morgantown, ironically moving on to Smalligan's native Michigan to head up the once-proud program in Ann Arbor. Left behind in Morgantown were roughly 13 Mountaineers -- including Smalligan -- labeled as "Beilein players." With the subsequent hiring of Bob Huggins, Mountaineer fans far and wide began to wonder just how many of these players would fit into Huggins's full-court pressure defense and fast-break motion offense.

"It's been different," Smalligan admitted last week. "It's interesting. At the same time, there's nothing you can do about it. We lost a great coach, but we have a great coach coming in so we're just trying to work hard for him and listen. We'll be fine this year."

Perhaps no player on the Mountaineer roster will have to make as big of an adjustment in a brief period of time as Smalligan. With just one season of eligibility remaining, it's now or never for the former Butler Bulldog. Whereas Beilein's offense afforded him open looks at the basket from downtown, Smalligan will now be counted on to produce closer to the basket in the role of a traditional big man.

"He's definitely going to work on parts of my game that – in college – no coach has worked with me on, you know?" Smalligan noted. "Under Beilein, even though I scored more buckets inside than I did at Butler, it won't be nearly as much as Coach Huggins is going to be able to help me."

Another big adjustment for Jamie will come on the defensive end of the court. In Beilein's 1-3-1 zone, the center was almost always playing at the foul line, as opposed to under the basket or on the block as will often be the case in man-to-man. And, like most centers, Smalligan will be counted on to grab his fair share of rebounds for a West Virginia team that has been lacking in board prowess over the past five seasons.

"For me to get the major minutes that I want and that he tells me he wants to play me, I have got to rebound better," said the level-headed senior. "That's a big thing, too."

To be more effective on the boards and overall, Smalligan spent his entire summer in Morgantown working out and trying to put on "good weight" that will allow him to absorb the physical punishment that comes with playing in the Big East.

"Coach Beilein wanted me to lose a lot of weight when I got here, and Coach Huggins wanted me to put a lot of that muscle back on, which was fine," he explained. "It wasn't too hard for me. At the same time, getting stronger and getting into the best shape of my life everyday has been challenging. We never quit, we're always going 100 percent out there."

Aiding the transition for Smalligan has been assistant coach Eric Martin, who spent last season on the bench with Huggins at Kansas State. Martin lettered from 1991-93 for Huggins at Cincinnati, and went on to a successful nine-year professional playing career in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Having played on the block for Huggins himself, Martin can offer invaluable insight to Smalligan and other Mountaineer big men not only from the perspective of a coach, but from that of a former player as well.

"That's definitely huge, you know? Having Eric out there is great," Smalligan said. "He's a great coach, and not that long ago he was a player for Coach Huggins. He's a great guy too. We really respect him. I really appreciate him helping me out. He's always there for us."

Nobody really knows what to expect from this team quite yet. With just a few days of full-fledged practice under their belt, neither the staff nor the players are likely ready to make any bold predictions for the upcoming season, which is precisely what Smalligan prefers.

"I'd rather be under the radar," he said. "We'll see what happens at the end of the year. That's what counts."

A solid, consistent contribution from Smalligan will go a long way in determining just how good the Mountaineers can be this year. While the circumstances of his senior season are likely not even close to what he expected five years ago, the big man will do whatever it takes to help the Mountaineers reach their full potential as a team.

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