It's match-ups and numbers, says head coach Bob Huggins. The concept isn't difficult. Rebound and run the floor, the players getting up and down and attempting to attack where the weakness presents itself. If a foe exposes an underbelly of poor ball stoppage, one goes to the rim. If it stuffs the attempted drive, there's always a pass-and-shoot option that comes with spreading foes out. And, with WVU's shooting ability, that long ranger could find the mark as often as a dish and dunk.
That, along with the base motion offense sets that attempts to create mismatches, was the focal point of the first practice of week two. The Mountaineers, finally finding their legs for the three-hour duration and with mental fatigue lessening, turned from defense to offense. Huggins says West Virginia had made significant progress on defense and is quickly learning the dos and don'ts of a scheme that relies less on operating like a chess match and more on the ability of players to simply read and recognize opportunities.
"It's all about numbers," Huggins said. "When you have numbers, you attack. If we have numbers we are going to attack. If we don't, then we are going to run some type of secondary transition into whatever it is that we are running. The idea is to score, and with the way we shoot the ball, we would be foolish not to spread people. I think when you see us, I don't have a problem with Da'Sean (Butler) starting the offense. I don't have a problem with Wellington (Smith) starting the offense. I would just as soon Jamie (Smalligan) not start it. But we just play. We try to teach them how to play. We don't have positions, per se."
Just options. Guard Joe Mazzulla noted that West Virginia has a secondary break it immediately goes into after its first up-floor burst and prior to running its motion sets. The second and third players up the floor – not the shooting guard and small forward, but literally the first two into the arc, usually flanking the ball – can run to the corner for a deep look after WVU tests to see if it can attack for a better shot. It operated a similar set last season, but that was part of the offense, not part of the transition game.
"It is more of a set play than it is a formation," Mazzulla said. "It's completely different. That is something that we want to get really quick before we get into our five-man motion offense. We try to catch the defense sleeping. If we do that with the secondary break, we don't even have to setup in our offense."
They just score, or try to. That's not to note that there are no rules, that it's just a pure playground style, which is what is perceived by many fans. Huggins is intricately teaching screens, how to set and read them. He is showing players what match-ups work in their favor and which do not, and how to maximize the number of options, namely by maximizing what players are allowed to do.
"We have rules; you have to have some rules or you will have total chaos," Huggins said. "But I think you don't take advantage of your guys' abilities if, for instance, we didn't let Da'Sean post or let Alex Ruoff post or didn't let Jamie step out on the floor or didn't let Wellington step out on the floor. I want them to learn how to play basketball. I am not interested in running from point A to point B. … One of the reasons guys like playing for me is because I let them play. That's one of the reasons they get better, because I let them go play basketball."
Mazzulla agreed, becoming the second player within one week to note how much more Huggins is getting out of him than did the coaching staff last season. Forward Joe Alexander said he felt "freed" to simply play, noting that the schemes weren't "like a puzzle I have to solve where I have to do all these little things a certain way."
"Coach Huggins is a players' coach," Mazzulla said. "He gets his players to play for him. I did not have the same drive last season as I do here. He gets me to play 120 percent every play every time. He makes his players go to war for him, and I love having the reputation of being a physical player because that's what he wants. It's the type of person that he is. He is not going to BS you. He is not going to sit here and try to lie to you. He tells it like it is. You are going to play hard and tough or you are going to go home and not play.
"That's how it is. He lays it on the line for you. He helps players realize that it is not his fault if you don't play, it's your own fault. If you are not doing what he is asking you to do, it is your own fault, nobody else's. In the first couple of days, we thought three hours was an eternity, all day. In the last couple of days, we have been working harder and our bodies are getting used to it. It goes by like that. Our bodies and our mental state are getting used to it."
Which means the current coaching staff will begin to push harder and add more, but only to a point. West Virginia still has five or six players who get it, and five or six younger players who do not.
"We have made a lot of strides," Huggins said. "It's harder for me to see than other people because I see them every day. I think we have made strides. I think they have bought in. That's the important thing. As long as they continue to try, we will be fine. The younger kids are struggling, but that is to be expected. We just have to get, hopefully, three, four, five more of those guys to put in the game. Right now they are not ready."
Note: Big East men's basketball media day is Wednesday. Huggins will travel with Darris Nichols and Joe Alexander to the event. Also, in order to ease the burden of keeping people out of the arena, which houses offices and classrooms, during closed practices, bungee cords have been stretched across the entrances to the seating areas. All are also tagged with a sign that reads "Arena Closed."