Intellects and Obstacles

West Virginia has playmakers at the guard slots. It just hasn't yet been fully able to unleash them.

The former coaching staff relied upon a guarded approach, quite literally, from the ball handlers, desiring an incredible assist-to-turnover ratio in exchange for a lesser emphasis on scoring and any drive-and-dish plays or personal creation. That ideal has flipped under first-year head coach Bob Huggins, who asks his guards to score, distribute and operate within the offense, if not be the players who always start it.

Huggins insists that any player can begin his motion offense, and requires only that the guards get into the flow of the sets and play within them. The limits, otherwise, are off. Darris Nichols and Joe Mazulla can now read and react without any hindrances. The shackles of setting a pick here, passing there or running to certain spots on the floor are banished to the receptacle bin that houses the cutting, screening, arguably outside-based, and quite effective, offense of yesteryear. What has emerged are opportunities for basketball players to make basketball plays: Take a foe off the dribble, drive past a standstill forward, take what's available, and simply engage oneself within the sport.

Nichols had 165 assists to 48 turnovers. Mazzulla's numbers were a more mundane 32 to 23, respectively. And Alex Ruoff, the returning player who most often handled the ball outside of Nichols, tallied 191 assists – a Big East best – to 78 turnovers. Nichols and Ruoff together averaged nearly a three-to-one ratio (356-126), numbers that surely won't hold.

"Watch that change," Nichols has repeatedly said.

The thought is that for the guards to make more plays, they must be allowed to make more mistakes as well. The pres and man defense will create the added chances needed, and Huggins is relying upon Nichols, Mazzulla and Ruoff to become more than just ball distributors. Especially with Nichols, teams had difficulty harnessing the then-junior last year, and his added weight and ball skills combined with floor presence, intelligence and raw ability provide at least the base ingredients needed.

"Darris doesn't turn it over, but Darris needs to make more plays sometimes," Huggins said. "He is really concerned about not turning it over, which is terrific. You don't want your point guard to turn it over. I think Darris is capable of making more plays than what he does because he is so guarded. … Joe is very competitive. Joe kinda got down on himself because he is so competitive. That is something we have to guard against. You screw up, you have to let it go and move on. I think he made some mistakes, then made other mistakes because he just could not let it go. That sometimes is what you have to fight with people who are very competitive."

That succinctly describes the psychological battle for the new coaching staff. Nichols and Mazzulla are preprogrammed to detest mistakes more than valuing making plays. The balance between the two must reemerge along with Mazzulla continuing to develop at the position. That's a transition that will certainly happen, the variable being time. Nichols, however, has started 104 games, all within the same system. Huggins believes the Radford, Va. native able to succeed in nearly every system, but like within the scrimmage, habits are difficult to break, and Nichols will resort to an embedded style of play at times. Both are hidden gems in the scoring areas. Huggins' job is to unearth that somewhat underlying talent.

"Joe has a lot to learn about being a point guard," Huggins said of Mazzulla, who played in 31 games, averaging eight points and nearly one rebound and one assist. "I don't think he has really played the position very long. In high school he was more of a scorer, and he played a little bit last year, but not all that much. He has a lot to learn about paying the position. The great thing is that he wants to be good and wants to learn. He is competitive; he is fast with the ball. But that position requires a lot because you not only have to know what you are supposed to do, you have to know what the other four guys are supposed to do. You can't get people in sets, you can't make changes (otherwise). You have the ball in your hands the majority of the time, so you have to be the coach on the floor."

And a reflection of the coach's persona. Mazzulla already is, his physicality, aggression and desire reeking of Huggins' approach during his three-year career from 1975-77. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Huggins was an inch taller and 15 pounds lighter than Mazzulla, whose broad built and weight room prowess fit the current scheme well. Nichols, viewed still as the more finesse player of the two, is toiling, physically and mentally, to gain those traits.

"He has probably got a pretty good chance," Huggins said of Nichols surely being one of his starters. "I think we have three guards that are all capable of starting in Joe and Darris and Alex. … We are very fortunate we have Darris with the ball, otherwise it would be a real challenge. That's probably why we were picked 10th (in the Big East preseason coaches poll). People look at the roster and say ‘Wow, they have eight freshmen and sophomores.' We are going to be a work in progress. If John (Beilein) would have been back we would have been a work in progress. Tell me anybody that is not going to be with eight freshmen and sophomores.

West Virginia, NIT champions at 27-9 last season, will hold its lone exhibition game, against Mountain State University, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. That and the scrimmage against Virginia, two weeks apart, are the lone preseason contests for the Mountaineers. WVU opens the season at home against Arkansas-Monticello and Prairie View A&M on Nov.16 and 18, respectively. Both games are part of the Legends Classic. West Virginia automatically advances from the "Morgantown Bracket" into pool play in Newark, N.J. versus No. 7 Tennessee on Nov. 23, a major neutral court test.

"It kind of comes and goes," Huggins said of WVU's continuing development. "I thought we made a lot of progress offensively, then when we scrimmaged, we did not do a very good job of execution (against Virginia in a scrimmage in the Coliseum). We didn't really run anything. We have a lot of work to do to get things where we want them to be."

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