By Cam Huffman
West Virginia University is certainly exploring a new frontier when it comes to athletics. If the 100,000-plus that filled Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas to watch the Mountaineers and Longhorns do battle last fall didn’t illustrate that point, the worst basketball season of head coach Bob Huggins’ career definitely sent the message.
“It was a big learning experience,” said Huggins of the 13-19 campaign, which ended with seven straight losses and plenty of frustration. “We tried to figure out the best way to travel, and I know the league is on board with trying to help us with travel issues.
“It was a different style of play than the league we came from. With that, the officiating was different. Now, a year in and knowing a little bit better what to expect, I think we’re a little bit better equipped to deal with those things.”
Huggins said that the notion that basketball is basketball, no matter where it is played, is flawed. The style of play in the Mountaineers’ new league, the Big 12, he explained, was a total 180 from the way the game was played in their old league, the Big East.
“I think the style we had in the Big East was a whole lot different,” said Huggins, who spent a year playing in the Big 12 while at Kansas State, where he spent one season before returning to Morgantown and the Big East, only to watch WVU join the Big 12 prior to the 2012-13 season. “This is more of a league where they spread you — more of a penetrate and pitch league. I think the Big East has classic 5-men. By in large, in the Big 12, people play smaller. It’s more of a skill league.”
Nowhere was that illustrated any better than at Oklahoma State, where Marcus Smart averaged 15.4 points and 4.2 assists per game on his way to Big 12 Player of the Year honors.
“I thought he was absolutely terrific,” said Huggins, speaking on the Big 12’s summer conference call Tuesday. “I don’t know that we’ve played against a guy that controls the game from the point guard position like he does since I was at Cincinnati and we played against Jason Kidd. He controls the game, and he has such a great will. I think Oklahoma State’s extremely talented.”
That’s the type of competition WVU will face this season as Huggins, just three years removed from a trip to the Final Four, tries to put Mountaineer basketball back on top.
And the league is only going to get better with seemingly every team adding to its talent pool.
Two of those talent infusions are coming directly from the Mountain State — Huntington, to be exact.
Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top high school prospect out of Huntington Prep, is headed to Kansas, and Marshall guard DeAndre Kane is transferring to Iowa State after being dismissed from the Thundering Herd program.
“He’s a good player,” said Huggins of Kane, whom he faced the last three seasons in the Capital Classic. “He has great size and can play on the perimeter. He’s very, very good at attacking the rim. I think he’s as good at attacking the rim as there is going to be in our league.”
The talent won’t be confined to the floor, either. Some of the biggest names in the league will actually be pacing the sidelines. Six of the Big 12’s 10 head coaches — Huggins, Lon Kruger (Oklahoma), Bill Self (Kansas), Tubby Smith (Texas Tech), Bruce Weber (Kansas State) and Rick Barnes (Texas) — have taken a team to the Final Four, and all of them have been in the NCAA Tournament.
“It makes it hard,” said Huggins. “I don’t know if there’s ever been another league where 60 percent of their coaches have coached in the Final Four. That’s extremely impressive.
“A few of those guys have actually won a national championship. Tubby reminds me of that every time I see him, so I know he’s won one.”
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So how do you match up against all that talent on the hardwood and on the bench? Huggins said the best approach is to forget the opponent and worry more about his own team. He’s also trying to make adjustments to be sure his squad matches up well against the style of play it will face. One such move is experimenting with playing sophomore guard Eron Harris, who averaged 9.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a freshman last season, at the point guard spot.
“We recruited him as a combo, but we had a couple guys that were primarily point guards last year so we didn’t play him there,” said Huggins. “I think he’s embraced it, and I think he gives us another guy on the floor that can score. I think it’s great to have a guy at the point who can score. Obviously, Eron can do that, and from a defensive standpoint he gives you length and athleticism.”
Harris, along with Terry Henderson, who also had a strong freshman season, will also be counted upon to provide leadership. They may only be sophomores, Huggins said, but they have as much experience as anybody.
“The best part is that they want to (be leaders),” Huggins explained. “Both of those guys are guys that understood that we lacked veteran leadership a year ago, and playing the minutes that both of them played last year, they feel like they’re ready, willing and capable to lead.”
And that apparently has enabled Huggins to relax, if only for a moment.
When Tuesday’s conference call came to an end, Huggins was ready to return to a previous engagement.
“I’m going back to fishing then,” he said with a laugh. “Is that all right?”