Alex Ruoff scored 17 points and Da'Sean Butler added 14 as West Virginia beat Arkansas-Monticello 81-53 Friday in the Mountaineers' first game under Huggins.
The excitement, lacking at times on the floor, was palpable in the stands. Long a football school, West Virginia has sold 6,600 season tickets, its most ever. Fans cheered Huggins louder than any player during introductions, and gave the 1977 WVU grad an ovation every time he visibly gave instruction.
"The state of West Virginia and West Virginia University have always been very close to my family," Huggins said. "My dad was here. My two sisters were here. I've got a brother here. So many people through the years that I have remained very close with are here and it's great to be around friends and family and to work at a university you love."
The 25-year collegiate coach returned to his alma mater in April when former West Virginia coach John Beilein left for Michigan after leading the Mountaineers to consecutive NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and the NIT championship last year. Huggins, who has long said his career goal was to coach West Virginia, left Kansas State to accept the position less than 48 hours after Beilein's departure.
The move left a sour taste at KSU, which later said it would not have hired Huggins just one year earlier if it knew how important coaching West Virginia was to him. But in the Mountain State, Huggins' 591 wins, sixth-best among active coaches, and blue-collar persona have been embraced. He is seen as a vehicle for the reemergence a program which hasn't been to the Final Four since Jerry West took it there in 1959. Fans are still jamming websites and radio shows with welcome messages, and have begun to refer to Morgantown, known during football season as Touchdown City, as Huggstown. Huggins' image adorns the media guide and pocket schedules, and he was cheered when he came out in a long blue suit with gold pinstripes given to him by his daughter.
"We haven't won a Big East championship, we haven't won a national championship," Huggins said. "People in West Virginia deserve to win one. That's what we're working towards."
Still, the coach who has already recruited a top 20 class to West Virginia is strapped with a squad currently better suited for Beilein's outside game than a physical, fast-paced style. That showed tonight, when West Virginia allowed an overwhelmed Division II team to stay in the game for the first 10 minutes.
"We're really young," Huggins said. "We have two seniors and two juniors and the rest of the guys haven't played very much. It's going to take some time. We were honest with them, though. We told them it was a game we ought to win."
Still in an obvious transition phase, West Virginia (1-0) used an inside and outside attack to piece together runs of 10-0 and 14-2 and take a 45-30 lead at the break. Five different players scored in the first push, which gave the Mountaineers a 23-9 lead with 9:40 left in the half. WVU hit two 3-pointers and added a pair of lay-ups and four free throws in the latter run that put it ahead 41-24 with two minutes remaining until the half.
Ruff and Darris Nichols later made back-to-back 3-pointers to jumpstart a 10-0 push to open the second half. That gave the Mountaineers a 55-30 lead with 16 minutes left. Joe Alexander, who had 12 points, scored off a jumper during the run, then dunked off an explosive alley-oop minutes later that spurred oohs and ahhs from the crowd and put West Virginia ahead 62-40 with 11 minutes to play.
Arkansas-Monticello (0-1) never got closer than 18 points afterward and trailed by as many as 30 at 81-51 on Josh Sowards' jumper with 2:48 left. The Boll Weevils were led by Devon Brown and Giovanni Marchetti, who both scored 13 points. West Virginia forced 27 turnovers, but committed 18 itself against 17 assists. It led the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio last year. Outrebounded in the vast majority of games last year, the Mountaineers had a 41-30 edge on the boards.
"It was a matter of coach drilling us at halftime about getting rebounds," Butler said. "We kind of took it personally and tried to play as hard as we could in the second half. Coach said for every rebound they beat us by it would be a sprint. That was motivation."
Huggins, a 1977 graduate and team captain, became the 19th WVU coach in 21 to win his opener. The game was part of the opening two rounds of the Legends Classic. Arkansas-Monticello lost to No. 7 Tennessee 101-44 on Nov. 14 in a game that was considered an exhibition for the Boll Weevils. West Virginia faces the Volunteers Nov. 23 after it plays Prairie View A&M on Sunday. A&M lost 89-75 at Tennessee on Friday. No. 16 Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia and New Mexico State automatically advance to the semifinals in Newark, N.J.