Hoop Thoughts

West Virginia captured an 88-65 exhibition basketball win over Mountain State on Saturday night to open the Bob Huggins era. While the score probably won't be long remembered, there was much to be learned from the game. From courtside, here are observations, thoughts and notes from the contest.

Huggins, as well as several players, noted that a walkover exhibition game wasn't what the Mountaineers needed.

"We didn't want a non-competitive game," Huggins said, explaining why he brought the small school power in for WVU's open exhibition game. "We needed to play someone else, and this was good for us. They were good off the dribble, and good in transition, and we needed to work against that."

WVU got what it wanted, as Mountain State was the best exhibition foe to grace the Coliseum floor in memory. MSU pounded the boards, played aggressive defense and gave a solid test to the Mountaineers, who are still clearly in the transition phase as they learn the Huggins system.

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The difference in attitude on drives to the basket was evident even in pre-game warm-ups. In past years, lay-ups were taken with a nonchalant approach to the hoop. However, on Saturday night, crossovers, jab steps and aggressive moves were part of the lay-up line.

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Although some observers might have expected West Virginia's rebounding issues to magically improve under Huggins, the fact is that there is no magic bullet. Joe Alexander and Da'Sean Butler have some natural skills that lend themselves to board work, but other than that WVU's best, and most consistent, rebounders are guards. Huggins believes that simply trying to get a rebound might prove helpful.

"We don't rebound in practice either," he said dryly after the game, in which WVU yielded a staggering 22 offensive rebounds and was outboarded by eight. "I think that if some people tried to get a rebound and got one, they might like it."

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WVU will play a small lineup at times this year, especially when facing an active, mobile front line that presents some matchup problems. West Virginia played a three guard, two forward lineup at times consisting of Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff, Joe Mazzulla, Da'Sean Butler and Joe Alexander, and also played two guards and three forwards at times.

"If we're not rebounding with a big lineup, playing a small one doesn't make any difference," Huggins noted.

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The official time of Huggins' first complaint to officials came at 18:32 of the first half. Huggins disagreed with a foul call on Ruoff, and voiced his displeasure, but not loudly or in a manner designed to show up the men in stripes.

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When Jamie Smalligan took an elbow to the faced from Mountain State's Jason McGriff, it was redshirt freshman Jacob Green, not true freshman John Flowers, who took the floor. While Flowers is more polished offensively (Green's jump shooting form is still a work in progress), the latter was much better defensively. He managed just two rebounds, but did a good job of keeping the ball out of the post. This will certainly be a rotation that is watched as the season progresses, and with plenty of time for players on the front line available, it could be that both end up earning solid minutes this year. However, there is still a long way to go before either can be considered a complete player.

Will Thomas and Cam Thoroughman are still limping noticeably, and both got just mopup minutes at the end of the game. Neither looks to be 100% physically, so it doesn't look as if they can be counted on for early season help.

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Postgame interviews have been moved from the team lounge and theater into the weight room. The move is a good one, as it allows much more room for the players, coaches and media to maneuver. Also, it provides something of a fitting backdrop to Huggins efforts to get his team stronger.

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The mood of the players who came out for interviews after the game was decidedly down, especially for guys that just won a game by 23 points. There was not one smile to be seen between Nichols, Ruoff, Alexander or Flowers, as all seemed to be concerned with how their performance would be received by the fans and evaluated by the coaches. As for Huggins, he puts the "dead" in deadpan. He does think about each question before answering, and doesn't duck anything, but his delivery is so soft and low key that you have to wonder if he's keeping some of his true feelings under wraps. No complaints, however, as to his dealings with the media. He has been accessible and forthcoming.

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After suffering from deep thigh bruises during his career, Joe Mazzulla is now wearing a set of pads that would probably look more at home on a defensive lineman.

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Finally, the toll that the all out, man-to-man defense preached by Huggins was evident, even in an exhibition game. Darris Nichols, accustomed to playing 38 or 39 minutes per game, logged just 33. Despite telling Huggins that he could play the entire game, the physical demands of playing man all over the floor forced Nichols to take a couple of rest breaks.


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