By Cam Huffman
Bob Huggins knows West Virginia University. He graduated from his hometown university after playing point guard for the team from 1975 through 1977. He returned in 2007 as the head basketball coach and has now been in charge of the Mountaineers for five seasons, taking them to the NCAA Tournament each year and all the way to one Final Four.
Huggins also knows the Big 12 Conference. After losing his job at Cincinnati, where he went 398-128 over 16 seasons, he spent the 2006-07 season at Kansas State, where he led the Wildcats to a 23-12 season before getting the opportunity to return home to his alma mater.
Now Huggins’ job is to bring the two together as WVU prepares to open its first season as a Big 12 member.
The Mountaineers, who finished 19-14 a year ago and lost to Gonzaga in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, will get started with the Gold and Blue Debut Friday night at the WVU Coliseum. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. 40-minute scrimmage between the Gold and Blue teams. There will also be introductions of players and staff, a speech from Huggins and an autograph session with the players following the scrimmage.
WVU will begin the regular season against the same team that ended last year’s campaign, playing at Gonzaga on Nov. 13 as part of ESPN’s 24 Hours of Basketball in a game scheduled for a midnight tipoff.
The Big 12 portion of the schedule will officially begin on Jan. 5 when the Mountaineers host Oklahoma for a Saturday afternoon game at 3 p.m.
It will be a new experience for WVU fans and players. They’re used to playing big-time basketball — the Big East was considered by many as the best college basketball league in the country the last few years — but the style they’ll face in the Big 12, where Kansas has been the unquestioned king, is a little different.
Huggins, though, said the Mountaineers’ attack won’t change.
“If we are (supposed to do something different), I’m not smart enough to do it,” the popular WVU coach joked. “We’re just going to play the way we play. We’ve had to change and adjust things over the five years I was there just because of personnel. There was like a five- or six-game stretch I played Da’Sean Butler at point guard. Didn’t want to. Didn’t have any choice.”
But don’t expect the Mountaineers to look the same as they did last year. Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, a sophomore guard who many experts have labeled with “NBA potential,” is eligible after sitting out last season, as is Boston College transfer Matt Humphrey.
Adding those two guards to a mix that already included sophomores Jabarie Hinds, Aaron Brown and Gary Browne, will give Huggins the backcourt for which he’s been searching since returning to Morgantown, and that could impact WVU’s style of play.
“We’re going to try to go back and play a little faster,” said Huggins. “I’d actually like to see us score once in a while. We’ve struggled with that.
“We finally have some guards. We were the only team in America that didn’t recruit guards. I think we’re fortunate now with Gary, Juwan and Jabarie, that we have three guys that can actually play the point.”
That, Huggins said, could be a big advantage, something he couldn’t say of his experience in the league.
“I don’t know. I know where to eat,” Huggins joked, when asked how his year in the league would help in the transition. “It’s changed since I was in the Big 12 when there was a North and South division and we played everybody in the South once and everybody in the North twice. There were places I didn’t get to go. I didn’t get to go to Lubbock. I almost wanted to stay just so I could go to Lubbock the next year.”
Many of the coaches have also changed. Bobby Knight, for example, was running the show at Texas Tech when Huggins coached Kansas State, and Texas A&M and Missouri were part of the mix. But, as Huggins explained, there are still plenty of good coaches with which he’ll have to match wits.
“You look at the coaches in this league — five of them (Kansas’ Bill Self, Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger and Huggins) having coached in the Final Four,” said Huggins. “There are great coaches in this league, but there is a wealth of experience in this league. So we all know each other.”
Perhaps the biggest difference fans will notice in the new league, Huggins said, is the home court advantages. In the Big East, WVU was one of the kings when it came to fan support. In the Big 12, the Mountaineers will see plenty of atmospheres similar to Morgantown.
“I think teams in the Big 12 probably have the best home court advantage of any of the major leagues in the country,” said Huggins. “We played in a lot of NBA arenas (in the Big East). There were a lot of teams that didn’t have their own arena, so it wasn’t on campus. I think it makes a huge difference.”
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