Good Shape, Good Start

West Virginia is looking for the best possible way to mesh older veterans with young and talented newcomers.

In three days of preseason practice, WVU head coach Bob Huggins hasn't decided on a starting lineup, a rotation, or anything like that. Looking down his roster and the skills of the players on it, however, Huggins has a pretty good idea of how his team will have to play this season in order to duplicate the success of one year ago.

"We don't have a low post guy, so we're going to have to play the way that we played a year ago and get somebody that we can throw it down to in the mid-post like we did with Joe (Alexander)," Huggins said. "We're still going to rely on making jump shots, but I think that we're better at driving it at the basket."

Last season, Huggins used an open post motion offense to take advantage of his team's strengths en route to a Sweet 16 appearance and winning Big East record. From that offense, Alexander was able to blossom into a first-team all-conference player before leaving school a year early to be drafted by the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.

While Alexander's loss is the most publicized and certainly the most significant from a scoring standpoint, the Mountaineers lost a pair of other contributors as well in 7-foot center Jamie Smalligan and veteran point guard Darris Nichols.

Smalligan's numbers might not seem like much to replace, but as the old adage states, height cannot be taught. The tallest player on West Virginia's roster is 6-10 junior college transfer Dee Proby. Huggins must find a way to get Proby on the court, if for no other reason than the junior is his tallest plaer.

"We need Dee's body," admitted the second-year head coach. "We had a guy in yesterday who saw Connecticut and Syracuse practice who told me that our guys are just going to have to play so hard, meaning what we already knew: we're just so small and they're just so big and strong. We're going to need these bodies.

"Dee is skilled. He can pass it and he can make some shots."

Replacing Nichols will also be tough. Though seldom a big-time scorer, Nichols was as solid as they come in terms of point guard play. In 141 career games – the most by any player in WVU history – Nichols held an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly three to one.

Taking care of the ball was a big reason why the Mountaineers were able to have so much success under Huggins in his first year. For West Virginia to continue its winning ways, they will have to at least be in the same ballpark as last year when it comes to taking care of the ball. Duplicating it all together, though, might not be possible.

"I don't know that we can," Huggins admitted. "We averaged 10 turnovers a game. I think that Alex (Ruoff) is good with the ball and Da'Sean (Butler) is good with the ball, so I don't think they'll turn it over much. I think that was the strength of our team a year ago. We didn't throw it to other people for scores."

Through the first three days of practice, Huggins has been impressed with the overall play of both Butler and Ruoff, each of whom will take on an added leadership role this season.

"Alex is playing with a lot of confidence and he should be because he's playing pretty well," he said. "Da'Sean is playing with a lot of confidence and he's playing pretty well. You play better when you have confidence and you have confidence when you play better. It's kind of that chicken and the egg thing. I'm not sure which comes first."

Overall, Huggins has been pleased with his team, particularly from a conditioning standpoint.

"I think we're in good shape," Huggins concluded. "I think that we are probably in better physical shape than what we were a year ago. Naturally, we're further along because we have (returning players) who know what they're doing. We're just trying to get the new guys caught up with the old guys and try to refresh everything that the older guys knew. We're trying not to bore (the veterans) but we have to get everybody else caught up."

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