The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

October 22, 2013

Huggins adjusting to Big 12

Bob Huggins entered the 2012-13 season thinking he knew something about the Big 12. The West Virginia University basketball coach had spent a year coaching at Kansas State during the 2006-07 season, after being dismissed despite winning 398 games in 16 seasons at Cincinnati. His stay in Manhattan, Kans., didn’t last long, though, as he was called back home to take over at WVU, his alma mater, after just one season.

Still, when the Mountaineers were invited to join the Big 12 last year, Huggins was the guy everybody surrounding the program turned toward for answers about what to expect in the new league.

The veteran basketball coach, who’s won 719 career games, thought he knew. He discussed the style of play, he broke down the basketball tradition and he warned of Kansas’ dominance.

“I think people assumed since I’d been in the league for a year that I kind of knew what was going on,” said Huggins Tuesday at the Big 12 Basketball Media Day. “I was kind of hoping that I did.”

Now, looking back at the Mountaineers’ first season in the Big 12, it’s clear Huggins was basically just as unprepared as everybody else.

WVU finished 13-19 overall and went just 6-12 in Big 12 play. It was the first losing season in 27 years for a Huggins-coached team and just the third of his career — the other two coming during his first year at Walsh College in 1980-81 and his first season at Akron in 1984-85.

“It was an entirely different league when I was there,” said Huggins, who admitted the first time through the league didn’t go as expected. “We had a North division and a South division, and you played everybody in the North twice and played the South once. So it’s an entirely different league and an entirely different atmosphere than it was when I was at K-State.”

Huggins also didn’t have to deal with the increased travel demands when he was with the Wildcats. Constant trips to Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Iowa really took a toll on the Mountaineers, and Huggins admitted that it was a much bigger challenge than he expected.

Once WVU did arrive at its destination, it also stepped into a new world.

“The atmospheres were night and day,” said Huggins, comparing the Big East and Big 12. “You go from a league where you play maybe half of your games in NBA arenas that are downtown, away from campus, and you don’t have the student involvement that you have in the Big 12. I think the atmospheres in the Big 12 are far tougher to play in than they are in leagues where you don’t play on campus.”

Everybody in the building, Huggins said, seemed to be against the Mountaineers.

“In the Big East, because we were an hour flight away and four- or five-hour drive, and because we had so many alumni up and down the East Coast, everywhere we went, we had a tremendous following,” he said. “In this league, it’s really hard, and we don’t have the alumni base that we have in the East. So there were a lot of differences.”

Then there’s the style of play.

In the Big East, teams liked to use a physical inside game, and officials let some contact occur. That wasn’t the case in the perimeter-oriented Big 12, where teams played more of a finesse game and officials called fouls much tighter.

“Let’s be honest,” Huggins said. “Officiating in this league compared to the officiating in the Big East was night and day. I think there was a great deal of adjustment for not just the coaches, but I think the players, as well.”

Huggins expects this year’s Mountaineer team, which will open the regular season on Nov. 8 against Mount St. Mary’s, and begin Big 12 play on Jan. 4 at TCU, to be much more prepared this time around.

The Big 12 has tried to help with the travel, scheduling games that allow WVU to stay out on the road instead of returning home and making a quick turnaround. WVU will play at TCU on Jan. 4 and stay in the Lone Star State to face Texas Tech on Jan. 6. The Mountaineers will go to Oklahoma State on Jan. 25 and stay out to head to Baylor on Jan. 28.

The other road trips are followed by long homestands, limiting the quick turnarounds that occurred so many times last season. The league has also aided WVU with some earlier start times on the road.

“I think the commissioner and everybody in the league have done a great job of trying to make it as painless as you can possibly make flying four hours painless,” said Huggins.

The Mountaineers have also adjusted their style of play. Freshmen guards Eron Harris and Terry Henderson were two positives in an otherwise negative season last year. Now sophomores, Huggins will plan his offensive attack around the perimeter abilities of those two and play a style more similar to the other teams in the Big 12.

“We’ve gone from, I think, trying to ineffectively throw it inside to where we’re going to be more of a perimeter team,” said Huggins. “There are a few fun things left in this business, and I think one of them is to watch people mature. Those guys went from being very shy, skinny little guys not knowing what to do and not being very assertive to taking on a leadership role. We don’t have any seniors, and we only have five returning guys, so those guys kind of have to assume a leadership role for us.

“They’re both talented guys, and they’re both really good guys. So we look for them to have big years for us.”

— E-mail: chuffman and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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