By John Raby
AP Sports Writer
It took a half century for West Virginia to return to the Final Four. Coach Bob Huggins doesn’t want it to take that long again.
With top scorer and assists leader Da’Sean Butler, defensive specialist and leading rebounder Devin Ebanks and starting forward Wellington Smith gone, Huggins will have to come up with a way to make another run into late March.
The newest version of the Mountaineers will have a tough time matching the excitement and production of last year’s squad that produced a school-record 31 wins before losing in the national semifinals to eventual champion Duke.
There’s still a solid crop of veterans, led by second-leading scorer Kevin Jones, that could help West Virginia make a run at a second straight Big East championship.
Last year’s team was dominated by tall, lanky players with huge wingspans — but few who could push around big opponents in the paint.
One reason was because 260-pound Danny Jennings and 270-pound Deniz Kilicli got little playing time.
The sophomores will be called on to bolster an inside game that’s been lacking consistency.
“I think it’ll be a little bit more conventional,” Huggins said. “We struggled sometimes a year ago with big strong guys inside because our strength was just our overall size where we could switch everything and virtually everybody could guard everybody.”
One thing that won’t change: The Mountaineers will play the same aggressive, lung-busting defense. West Virginia led the Big East in rebounding margin a year ago and was second in scoring defense at 63.5 points per game.
“We can’t abandon those things,” Huggins said. “I’d like to play faster. I’d like to be able to score a lot more. A lot of transition basketball comes off certainly the ability to rebound and the ability to create from your defense. We have to continue to work at those things. We are bigger and stronger. So hopefully we’ll be able to throw it close (to the basket) a little bit more than what we were able to.”
Butler, Ebanks and Smith comprised half of the team’s 72-point scoring average a year ago and Jones will be counted on to improve his 13.5 scoring average.
Jones added 10 pounds during the offseason and now weighs 260. The junior believes he’s more mature and adept at handling the pressures of Big East basketball.
“There was a lot of times last year and my freshman year when I would get down on myself,” Jones said. “If like I had a bad game or if I’m not shooting well, I just had to learn to shake the little stuff off.
“I’m just looking to come in there and impose my will.”
Huggins wants his big men to establish themselves. too. Kilicli averaged 3.5 points in seven minutes per game, while Jennings averaged less than two points and rebounds in five minutes per contest.
If West Virginia is going to be anywhere near as good as last year, “guys like Deniz and Danny are going to have to play really well, where Deniz is going to have to be a guy we can throw the ball to score,” Huggins said. “I don’t know if they’re ready to do that. I hope they are.”
Huggins will use third-year starter Truck Bryant and veteran backup Joe Mazzulla on the court at the same time to help in transition.
“It’s the first time we’ve got guys who could actually dribble,” Huggins joked.
Bryant, the team’s fourth-best scorer at 9 points, missed West Virginia’s final three games in the NCAA tournament with a broken foot suffered in practice.
In Bryant’s place, Mazzulla became the MVP of the East Regional after scoring a career-high 17 points in a win over Kentucky. Mazzulla played most of last season with pain from a surgically repaired left shoulder.
“We don’t have a Da’Sean, we don’t have a Wellington to go to, so we in fact might be those go-to guys,” Mazzulla said. “So we need to have that more aggressive perspective on offense.”
West Virginia will start the season without backup guard Casey Mitchell, who was suspended indefinitely before practice began for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He averaged 3.7 points a year ago. Freshman Noah Cottrill also is on indefinitely suspension.
Huggins refuses to call this a rebuilding year, although it will be a challenge for the unranked Mountaineers to earn their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
West Virginia’s tough nonconference schedule includes a tournament in Puerto Rico this month that includes possible games with No. 8 North Carolina, Nebraska and Minnesota. There’s also a January rematch with No. 14 Purdue, which handed the Mountaineers their first loss a year ago.
“I like to be good,” Huggins said. “I like to walk out there at halfcourt and look at their guys, look at mine and say we ought to win, we’ve got better guys. It doesn’t always work that way, particularly in this league. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”