It is safe to say that the first year of the Bob Huggins era in Morgantown was a rousing success. What do the Mountaineers have planned for an encore? More of the same, according to Huggins. West Virginia will tip off preseason practice on Friday night with Mountaineer Madness presented by Full Throttle. The event is free and open to the public beginning at 9:30 PM.
"I'm anxious to be on the floor. I'm anxious to spend two consecutive days in Morgantown," said Huggins, who has been on the road more often than not since the 2008 season ended with a loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16. "I like our team, we're just small. It's the same issues we had last year. I think we're pretty good."
During limited individual and group workouts this fall, Huggins has had a chance to mix and match a host of returning veterans with a promising crop of highly-touted newcomers. The results in those limited workouts have been encouraging, as Huggins at least has a slight idea of how all the pieces will fit together when West Virginia opens the season a little more than a month from now.
"I think we're going to have four or five guys in double figures," Huggins said. "That's the kind of team we have. We don't have a guy that can do what Joe (Alexander) did on a consistent basis at the end of the year. Alex (Ruoff) is going to be a good scorer for us and Da'Sean (Butler) is going to be a good scorer for us. I think Joe Mazzulla can be a good scorer for us. It's going to be the same guys."
That's not to say that newcomers Darryl Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Dee Proby will not contribute early and often in their collegiate careers. Each player has the ability to fill a need for the Mountaineers, whether that be more length on both ends of the court (Ebanks and Jones), added toughness (Bryant) or another big body on a team seriously devoid of height (Proby).
"They're going to play a lot of minutes," Huggins said of the newcomers. "I think the good thing about our team is I think we are a lot deeper than we were a year ago."
Adding to that depth could be the emergence of sophomore forward John Flowers. As a freshman last season, Flowers played sparingly down the stretch as the rigors of a Big East season took a toll on the Waldorf, Md. native. Under the tutelage of new basketball strength and conditioning coach Andy Kettler, Flowers has added 12 pounds of muscle to his frame.
Combine that with his marked improvement on both ends of the playing floor and it's easy to see why West Virginia's coaching staff is optimistic about Flowers' fortunes in 2008-09.
"Erik Martin and I were just talking and I think the most improved on our team has been John Flowers," Huggins acknowledged. "John has made significant improvements."
Flowers, though, has not been the only player to add significant bulk in the offseason. Junior forward Wellington Smith has added 13 pounds to his 6-7 frame since returning from the Jones Cup in Taiwan, where he played alongside Da'Sean Butler for the United States. Freshman Kevin Jones has added 17 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus this summer. Sophomore guard Jonnie West has also added 13 pounds without sacrificing his ability to make shots.
Although Kettler, who came to WVU in July after two seasons as the director of strength and conditioning at Winthrop, has not been in Morgantown long, the results he has produced have been remarkable. Huggins is especially pleased with the way Kettler has worked the freshmen.
"They're getting there, but it takes time," he said. "It's a learned trait. That's why we practice the way we practice and that's why they go through what they go through. They're so much better now than they were when they came in and I think a lot of that is because of what Andy has done with them."
Ruoff, the lone senior on this team, has picked up where he left off at the end of the season by expanding his game to include an improved ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop. In the postseason, Ruoff demonstrated a willingness to put the ball on the floor, and has worked tirelessly at improving that skill in the offseason.
"He has worked at it, and he needs to do that because he's got everybody running at him now because everybody knows he can make shots," Huggins noted. "He's also worked hard at playing in the post a little bit, which is a good thing. Maybe we can do that when other teams come in with smaller guards."
The only noticeable weakness heading into the season is the aforementioned lack of height. Proby, a junior college transfer from Round Rock, Tx., is the only player on the roster taller than 6-9.
"He's a big body, and we needed a big body," Huggins said. "He's got a big body, passes it and steps out and shoots it. He's a guy because of the way we play in open post that can be very valuable. He is very capable of making shots."
Though Proby is more comfortable for now facing up to the basket on offense, Huggins is confident he will improve his post game over the course of the season.
"He'll get better just like Jamie got better," Huggins said. "He's never going to be a great low post guy, but he'll get better. They all do. The way we play lends itself to guys expanding their games a little bit."
The plans for the new basketball practice facility are moving right along.
"I think we're real close to having all the money pledged," said Huggins, who has taken the initiative to raise many of the funds personally. "We're just a little bit away. We've got people who are going to do it, we just haven't gotten to them yet. My understanding is that we're going to break ground pretty soon. I'm not sure what the exact date is, but its well on the way."