Preparing For Launch

Perhaps the most highly-anticipated basketball season for West Virginia in a half-century begins Sunday afternoon when NAIA foe Mountain State takes on Bob Huggins and company at the WVU Coliseum.

The Mountaineers are ranked in the top 10 of both major preseason polls, only the third time in program history that the team has made an appearance in any such listing.

With an abundance of both returning and fresh talent at hand, Huggins' third team at his alma mater may be the most skilled to play in Morgantown since the Jerry West era of the late 1950s.

The excitement that has surrounded the start of basketball season has been evident. Huggins said that WVU has sold somewhere between 7,500 and 8,000 season tickets.

Adding in the sizable student section of the Coliseum, somewhere between 10,000-11,000 of the building's 14,000 seats were already taken before single game tickets even went on sale.

That tangible buzz is something Huggins has been hoping to build since arriving at West Virginia in 2006.

"I've said a long time that the people of West Virginia ought to come see us play," the head coach said. "They shouldn't come because we're playing Connecticut or Syracuse or whoever. They ought to come because we're playing and to enjoy this team."

"I know how proud the state is, but it would be great to fill the arena with people who want to come watch us play."

Fans will get their first chance to do so in the 2009 season when the Mountaineers take on Mountain State at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Beckley, W.Va., based school may be an NAIA program, but it has some standout players.

Cincinnati transfer Alvin Mitchell and Western Carolina transfer Nick Aldridge (who was an all-conference performer at WCU) headline a lineup that also includes an abundance of big bodies that will test WVU in the post.

"They've got Division I-caliber players," Huggins said. "(Head coach) Bobby (Bolen) does a great job coaching them and they play really hard."

Standing head and shoulders above the crowd (quite literally) will be 7-foot-8 center Paul Sturgess. The native of England is just the tallest of four MSU players that stand at least 6-foot-8.

Bob Huggins

"They've been national champions. They've been national runner up. They're top five in the country all the time in the NAIA," said Huggins of Mountain State, which trailed by only six points with 7:20 remaining in a game against WVU two seasons ago.

"They've given us really good games the last two years. I think it's a great game for us. I think it gives our young guys to play in front of, hopefully, a packed house, so they can get used to the environment. It's fun. We need to play against somebody else. They're tired of pounding on each other."


Point guard Joe Mazzulla is likely to sit out Sunday's contest after missing last week's open scrimmage due to injury.

That appeared to be more of a precautionary move than anything else.

"I think Joe could play this week," Huggins said. "I really don't want him to play this week."

The head coach will likely want the junior guard back as soon as reasonably possible, as Da'Sean Butler has been forced to play at the point this week when the Mountaineers have scrimmaged against themselves in practice.


Huggins did little to hide the fact that he was not a fan of the NCAA's ruling that freshman forward Deniz Kilicli would have to sit out 20 games.

The head coach explained that Kilicli played for a club team in his hometown in his native Turkey, where there is no high school basketball. The club team moved a player down from the professional ranks to the squad Kilicli was on, and the two played together for 11 games.

That begged the question, "Why is the penalty for 20 games if the two only played in 11 contests together?"

"You probably ought to talk to (WVU's) compliance (office) about that," Huggins said after being posed that question.

"I've never really had foreign guys. This is my first deal, and he's a wonderful kid. He's a really, really good kid that loves being here and wants to be here. How does a kid in Turkey that probably didn't speak English until he got over here, then they move a guy down to his team, how does he know that wasn't right? How is that his fault? It doesn't seem like the penalty fits the crime."

While Kilicli will be available to play in the MSU game and a later contest against the University of Charleston (W.Va.) because both are exhibitions, the head coach even seemed frustrated by that fact.

"There is a lot of things that happen that don't seem fair. There's guys that have been suspended and they count exhibition games in the suspension. They wouldn't let us do that with Deniz."

Still, Huggins and Kilicli will have to make the best out of a bad situation by using the exhibition games as a chance for the forward to get valuable minutes early in the season.

With the Big East Conference schedule in full swing when the freshman is set to play a regular season game for the first time (against arch-rival Pittsburgh, no less), getting any game action now is of the utmost importance.

"I think all the experience he can get certainly helps," Huggins said. "He probably hasn't played in an environment like this."

Still, that doesn't mean that Kilicli will get any more minutes than other newcomers. The head coach said that none of the freshmen are capable of playing even 30 minutes of a game at the high level WVU's coaching staff demands.

While losing Kilicli, who by all accounts has been a skilled presence inside during the Mountaineers' practices thus far, will hurt his team's development, Huggins expressed sympathy for a player that he said simply wants to play.

"I feel really bad for him," he said.

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