Refocused

He had spent the past several weeks telling all who would listen that his then-undefeated team had plenty of flaws that would eventually be exposed. After Purdue did the job of putting those problems on display, WVU head coach Bob Huggins believes his team is finally taking the necessary steps to improve.

"They look at the tape and they can see. They understand," Huggins said. "We've been careless with the ball, I think, from the beginning (of the season). It just didn't bite us until now. We're not close to being as good defensively as what we've been."

The reasons for both of those problems are numerous, and each works hand-in-hand to make the other worse than it might otherwise be.

Of course, point guard depth is one thing West Virginia, which fell to No. 8 in both major polls after losing 77-62 to the Boilermakers on New Year's Day, simply does not have on its roster.

Joe Mazzulla's shoulder issues have been well-documented, and with Truck Bryant working to recover from a problem with his left hamstring, the Mountaineers have had to use a starting lineup of five forwards recently.

While those players have done what they could, Huggins harbored no thought that playing without a point guard for the vast majority of games was a good thing for his team.

"I haven't seen my point guards in awhile," said the third-year WVU coach. "I think they're struggling a little bit. But the majority of that is self-imposed. I think the last time Truck started was Cleveland State. He didn't respond very well."

"But we'll be fine. That's what we're supposed to do -- fix it. We're going to do the best we can to fix it. Truck was serviceable a year ago, and he needs to be more than serviceable now. Joe shouldn't turn the ball over. His shoulder has nothing to do with turning the ball over. We've just got to fix that."

Problems with ball-handling reared their head against Purdue, which forced 18 Mountaineer turnovers in that game. The then-No. 4 Boilers converted those miscues into 23 of their 77 points.

Huggins said his team's issues on the offensive end have created problems for his defense that would otherwise not exist.

"I think, to a large degree, it's us throwing the ball to them for lay-ups," he said. "That's hurt our field goal percentage (defense)."

Still, while there is plenty of reason for the head coach to find faults with his team's play, the fact remains that the Mountaineers are firmly in the nation's top 10 at 11-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big East Conference.

The squad gets a chance to get the bad taste of the Purdue loss out of its mouth and add another conference win to the ledger when it takes on Rutgers at the Coliseum on Wednesday night.

The Scarlet Knights (9-4, 0-1) had reeled off six consecutive victories in the month of December, but have lost their last two against tougher competition.

At the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., RU trailed No. 9 North Carolina by only four points with 2:00 remaining on Dec. 28. But the Tar Heels rallied late and won 81-67.

As the calendar flipped to 2010, Rutgers returned to Piscataway to begin Big East play against a hot Cincinnati team. The Bearcats walked away a 65-58 winner just a game after upsetting then-No. 10 Connecticut.

Things get no easier for the Knights, as they travel to Morgantown to face a talented WVU team that is hoping to quickly get back to its winning ways.

"I think they're a lot better," said Huggins, when asked to compare this year's Rutgers team to those of recent vintage.

Much of that is because of a balanced line-up with solid guard play (as opposed to the bigger roster Hill sported last year) that has allowed for more aggressive defenses to be utilized by RU coach Fred Hill.

"They've got two experienced point guards (juniors James Beatty and Mike Coburn) that put them in what Fred wants them to run. (Shooting guard Mike) Rosario (17.6 points, 4.5 rebounds per game) is one of the better players in the league."

"They're a much more mobile team now and can play more pressure now. Having those two bigs, it was hard for them to really get out and pressure. Now, playing a 6-7 guy there (forward Jonathan Mitchell) who is pretty athletic, they can play differently from what they had played before."

That doesn't mean the team lacks a big man. Hamady Ndiaye, the Scarlet Knights' 6-11 center, is a player Huggins coached against when the current WVU head man was working the sidelines at Kansas State for a season.

Now in his senior season, the native of Dakar, Senegal, has transformed his game and become a solid performer (9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game) for RU.

"He's just gotten worlds better," Huggins said. "He's leading the country in shot blocks (5.2 per game) and, as we showed our guys yesterday, just made some incredible plays. So he fortifies the basket for them so they can take more chances."

Still, Rutgers' offense runs through Rosario, a talented shooter who could make life difficult for the West Virginia defense.

Huggins has continually pointed to the team's slow rotation to the ball when it needs to help as a problem that must be worked through. He said that is an issue that takes a certain attitude for players to address, as much as anything else.

"Our whole thing for two years has been, ‘Get to the ball,'" said Huggins. "I've told them I heard Lou Holtz say one time, ‘Billy Ray Smith wasn't an All-American because he didn't get knocked down. He was an All-American because he didn't stay down.' He took the shortest route to the ball-carrier and arrived in a bad mood."

"That's what we want our guys to do -- get to the ball, and get there in a bad mood."


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