In the first half of West Virginia's game against Winthrop, an Eagle player hoisted a shot toward the hoop. Point guard Darris Nichols, who is depended upon to key WVU's transition game, might have been expected to edge out to the wing in anticipation of receiving an outlet pass. However, he spotted a Winthrop player on the blocks, unchecked by any of his teammates, and in perfect position to snare an offensive rebound. Nichols, who wasn't expected to rebound much last year (even in his bottom position on the 1-3-1 defense), knew that his first job would have to wait.
Flying down the lane, Nichols not only got level with his foe, but actually muscled him aside while airborne in order to make space to grab the rebound. It was not only an impressive show of quickness, agility and strength, but also a stark demonstration of the style of play that Huggins has instituted in this year's team.
"He was the only guy that was open, and I was the only guy that was over there," Nichols explained matter-of-factly after the Mountaineer win. "I knew that if I didn't put a body on him, Coach Huggins wouldn't let me hear the end of that."
It wouldn't have just been a verbal lesson, either. When West Virginia gives up more rebounds than it gathers, or makes glaring mistakes in boxing out, running is the result at subsequent practices. Piled on top of the three-hour sessions, that can make for an exhausting day, so it has been a point of emphasis for each player on the team. Grab the ball, avoid the extra sprints.
So far, the results have been good. West Virginia holds a +5.6 rebounding margin over its foes, and has not been beaten decisively on the boards in any game. The Mountaineers have recorded numerous second chance points as well, as fully one-third of their rebounds have come on the offensive end.
The quick turnaround in rebounding prowess begs the questions – could West Virginia have done this sore of thing a year ago? What has fueled the change? Was the ability to rebound and play physically there all along?
"I don't know," Nichols replied, when asked if he could have made the same sort of play last year. "I was never in that position. They really didn't count on me to rebound last year. He really wants me to get rebounds this year."
The emphasis from the coaching staff has certainly been a factor, as has the move to a man-to-man defense, which makes it easier to find an opponent to box out. However, that's not a magic bullet – players still have to keep their foes off the glass with a combination of strength and quickness – and that combination might not have existed in many of West Virginia's players a year ago.
"I think it was a little bit of both [mental and physical elements]," Nichols said of his rebound. "I think the weightlifting and all of that has paid off.. Last year we weren't a very physical team at all, but this year a lot of other teams are saying how physical we are."
Nichols' rebound might be the signature play of West Virginia's young season. It certainly wasn't a highlight film sequence, but it might be the one that best defines the new era of Mountaineer basketball.