76 Classic Notes

ANAHEIM, Calif. – A smattering of odds and ends from the 76 Classic here.

Head coach Bob Huggins is trying different combinations in an effort to begin melding a rotation. West Virginia has the ability to go nine to 10 players deep with great quality when Dennis Kilicli returns, but setting the line-up and deciding on substitutions are issues likely to remain into the latter portion of February. Kilicli is scheduled to be eligible to play Feb. 3 against Pitt when his 20-game suspension finishes. He will certainly see time, and that will cause other movement in the rotation.

Huggins is currently starting Da'Sean Butler, Kevin Jones, Wellington Smith, Casey Mitchell and Truck Bryant. But expect to see Devin Ebanks starting soon, which would slide Jones or, possibly, Smith to the bench. Keep an eye on Joe Mazzulla throughout the year as well. The junior's shoulder is obviously still bothering him, and his pain will dictate how much Truck Bryant plays. If Mazzulla is hurt or in foul trouble and Bryant in foul trouble, Huggins has continued to use Butler as the de facto point guard. A guess at the late-season rotation: Bryant, Mitchell, Butler, Smith and Ebanks, with John Flowers as the insta-energy off the bench first. Then Jones or Kilicli for Smith, then Mazzulla for Butler. Kilicli could also sub for Ebanks. That's a solid nine deep without even considering Cam Thoroughman, who is sure to see time in most games. Add in a dash of Dan Jennings and Dalton Pepper as needed, and Huggins has a football team of reasonable depth. The players are also interchangeable enough to match a team physically or to get better quickness on the floor.

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Regarding the physical issue, Huggins noted Texas A&M out-powered the Mountaineers for the majority of the first half in the 76 Classic semifinals. Bryan Davis routinely muscled Jones and Smith in the lane, which is unusual for a Huggins-coached team. Davuis finished with just six points, but did grab 10 rebounds, seven of which were offensive. That's too much, and partially led to 11 second-chance points for the Aggies.

"I didn't think we did a very good job until the end of the first half of meeting their physicality," Huggins said. "They were very physical with screens and rebounding the basketball. I thought at the end of the first half we stepped it up and did much better in the second half."

WVU did begin to show signs of toughness later. But slow starts against physical teams – Ole Miss and especially Purdue, for example – must be remedied. The problem is that the schedule doesn't allow for a lot of reps against bigger teams over the next month. West Virginia plays a small-but-skilled Portland team in the Classic finals, then runs a gamut of Duquesne, Coppin State and Cleveland State before Ole Miss. League play then kicks in with Seton Hall and 6-8, 236-pound forward Herb Pope, a one-time Huggins recruit.

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Texas A&M ran several perimeter screens on the Mountaineers designed to create either lane space for drives or three-point chances – although A&M took just three in the opening half, making one. It worked well, as WVU seemed unable to fight through the screens. Aggie guards had lanes several times to the basket, and it appeared that the West Virginia coaching staff decided to switch the majority of screens later in the game. That often got some mismatches inside. Huggins shored up some of that by brining Ebanks onto the perimeter. His 6-9 frame and wingspan made it more difficult for Texas A&M to get good entry passes. That showcased itself best with Ebanks' two steals in the final minute to seal the win. Watch how the coaching staff handles this into the season, especially against a foe with size and strength. Do the players switch or fight through? Does the team switch with some, but not others? And do the players communicate where and when screens are set to better enable teammates to anticipate and react accordingly. West Virginia communicated noticeably better in the second half against A&M. The Ags still scored the exact same amount of points in the paint – 18, for a total of 36 – but the screens weren't the major reason.

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Joe Mazzulla continues to warm-up with both right- and left-hand shots. It's clear he is bothered by his shoulder, and is trying to find which side will serve him best. The vast majority of his breakaway lay-ups have been toward the right-hand side this season despite the guard being a natural lefty. His left arm also hangs a bit at times when he is moving on defense, and thus far he has been unable to get through a game in Anaheim without having to come out because of pain.

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West Virginia has a chance to win an in-season tournament for the first time since 2001, when the Mountaineers beat New Mexico in Albuquerque's Hispanic College Fund Classic. Since then, WVU has not won a championship in eight in-season tournament appearances in which there were two games or more. It did beat Oklahoma in the All-College Classic in 2005, but that was a single game. West Virginia went 0-2 in the Fiesta Bowl Classic (Tucson) later in the same season in which it played in the College Fund Classic. Other tournaments since: 2002 Jim Thorpe Classic (Las Vegas; 1-1), 2003 BB&T Classic (Washington, D.C.; 1-1), 2003 Orange Bowl Classic (Miami; 1-1), 2006 Old Spice Classic (Orlando; 2-1), 2007 Legends Classic (Newark, N.J., 3-1), 2008 Las Vegas Invitational (Las Vegas; 3-1).

The school last won a three-game or more in-season tournament in 1997 at the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Shootout by beating Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Rice and Dayton. The only other three-plus game in-season tournament championship captured by WVU was the 1955 Orange Bowl Classic. Trivia: Name the last in-season tournament in which West Virginia played in California? (Answer at end of column.)

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It's interesting in the juxtaposition of warm-up styles between the Mountaineers and most other programs. WVU doesn't open with a loose shoot-around or a lay-up and jumpshooting line. Head strength coach Andy Kettler leads a full stretching routine with usage of the rubber bands. The team also does leg kicks to the halfcourt line and back and slide steps in the same manner. When Texas A&M was simply shooting and running a few base lines, West Virginia had stretched, shot lay-ups and jumpers and used a drill where a coach defends at the elbow and a player receives a pass and executes a fake and a drive or jumper. It's a closer mimic of game conditions, and allows players to get into a game feel prior to tip.

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It appears West Virginia will be the road team for all three of its games in the Classic. The Mountaineers played out of the very top slot of the top bracket, meaning it was a road team the opening game – which it would have been anyway because the Big West host team, in this case Long Beach State, is always the home school. It was the road team against Texas A&M because of being in the top portion, and it should remain there for the final against Portland if the pattern holds. That would indicate another game in the all-blue jerseys, which appears to work equally well for football and basketball.

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The 76 Classic certainly appears to have taken a back-step with its 2010 field. UCLA and Long Beach State are major national and local names, respectively, with West Virginia, Minnesota, Butler and Clemson all ranked. Next year's line-up: Cal State Northridge (Big West), Oklahoma State (Big XII), Penn State (Big Ten), DePaul (Big East), Stanford (Pac-10), Tulsa (Conference USA), UNLV (Mountain West) and Virginia Tech (ACC).

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Trivia answer: The 1991 Cable Car Classic in San Francisco. WVU beat Boston College and lost to Alabama-Birmingham.


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