Time To Play

Ready or not, the first games of the Bob Huggins era are fast approaching. The 2007-08 Mountaineer men's basketball team will make its first public appearance on Saturday night with a 7:00 exhibition game at the Coliseum against NAIA power Mountain State University.

For the past several weeks, Huggins and his three-man assistant coaching staff have been heavily installing systems on both offense and defense. And while there is still plenty of work to do both in installation and in executing the sets on both ends of the court, the Huggy Bear says it's probably time to roll out the ball and battle an opponent other than themselves.

"We probably need to play a game," Huggins said. "We don't have close to everything in, but I think we need to play somebody else."

That somebody else is perennial NAIA national title contender and 2002 national champion Mountain State. The Cougars, located in Beckley and formerly known as the College of West Virginia until the name change in 2001, will bring an up-tempo full-court game to Morgantown with hopes of spoiling the Huggins homecoming under the bright lights of the Coliseum. Head coach Bob Bolen is assisted by legendary Woodrow Wilson High School coach Dave Barksdale, a winner of five Class AAA state championships during the 1990's with the Flying Eagles.

Huggins says he expects the Cougars to challenge West Virginia not just from a competitive standpoint, but also in certain aspects of the game in which the Mountaineers still need plenty of work to improve before the actual season begins.

"We haven't defended ball screens much, and they're going to ball screen a lot," he said of Bolen's squad. "They're a very good transition team, and we have spent time but probably not enough time on transition defense. So that's something that probably is going to be tested. We've got to continue to rebound the ball better, and I think they'll be a challenge for us that way. They are going to spread the floor, which I think really puts an onus on us being able to sit down and guard the ball. So, I think they will do a lot of things that we probably need practice in."

West Virginia will also use the game as an opportunity to continue searching for the right mix of players, not just in the starting five, but throughout the rotation. Huggins has noted throughout the preseason that he currently feels comfortable with roughly five to seven players in his rotation, but is still looking for a few good men to step into additional roles coming off the bench.

"I'd like to have ten, you know? If you can kind of have one (off the bench) for each position, I think that would kind of be terrific," he said when asked to name an ideal headcount for his rotation. "I think it helps so much in practice, and makes things more competitive, and helps you get better. You know, it's a long season. Guys get hurt, sick, so it's nice to have somebody that knows what they're doing to come in."

The problem with filling out that rotation, it appears, is two-fold. Huggins has noted several times during preseason interviews that as a first-year coach with this team, the unfamiliarity between players and coaches can sometimes seem almost like having a roster full of rookies. Veterans such as senior point guard Darris Nichols and sophomore Alex Ruoff have plenty of game experience in their Mountaineer careers, but have not played for Huggins. Thus, Huggins and his staff have had to take more time teaching the finer points of their system to the entire team instead of having veteran players familiar with what he's looking for who can draw from experience to help the younger guys along. The good news, he says, is that this problem will not be reoccurring as the veterans begin to pick things up more and more each day.

The second part of the problem stems from a roster full of potential but devoid of much experience outside of those five to seven players who have picked things up well. Former head coach John Beilein signed seven players in the 2006 recruiting class, three of whom (forwards Cam Thoroughman and Jacob Green, and guard Jonnie West) spent the 2006-07 campaign as redshirts. Sophomores Da'Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla, and Wellington Smith all saw the court last season, with Butler especially playing valuable minutes down the stretch. The seventh member of the class, guard Devan Bawinkel, played sparingly last season before breaking his wrist prior to a game at Seton Hall, and has since left the program and school.

"We've really got four upperclassmen, and I think when you only have four upperclassmen, I think young guys just aren't as consistent as the older guys," explained Huggins. "They haven't done it as much, and they aren't as consistent. And when people do things they haven't seen before, they get confused whereas older guys have seen a lot of things. It's a matter of we're just so young. You know when you had seven guys in a freshman class, that's more than half of your team in one class. It's great if those seven are seniors, but when they're freshmen I think that makes it difficult."

The most critical concern right now, according to the man with 590 career wins, is a lack of consistency rebounding the basketball. West Virginia has been plagued by poor rebounding numbers for the past five seasons, part of which is due to Beilein's unorthodox philosophy of discounting the statistic in order to emphasize other facets of the game such as creating turnovers and making teams guard for the entire shot clock. Perhaps the most notable and prominent difference in styles from the previous coaching staff to the current is in fact the importance of rebounding. Whereas Beilein valued possessions over rebounds, Huggins prefers high board numbers to enhance defensive effectiveness and begin the transition game.

"It's a matter of being more consistent with it," said the former Walsh College, Akron, Cincinnati, and Kansas State head coach. "You know, we go rebound it; we just don't go rebound it all the time. We block out, we just don't block out all the time. It's just a matter I think of them being more consistent and I think of probably from (a coaching) standpoint emphasizing it on a more consistent basis...That's an area I think that we really need to get better at."

On Saturday night, Huggins and his team will get a good barometer of where they stand in this and other areas with the regular season set to tip-off next Friday.


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