The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 1, 2013

Huggins anxious to get started

For many West Virginia fans, the start of basketball practice Monday went by almost unnoticed. In the midst of an up-and-down football season, and with the emotion from an upset victory over Oklahoma State still fresh in the air, it’s just too early for most to think about point guards and 3-pointers.

Don’t count WVU head coach Bob Huggins in the crowd. The seventh-year Mountaineer mentor considers himself an avid football fan, but entering his 32nd overall season as a college coach, he’s never experienced a year quite like what he went through during the 2012-13 campaign.

The Mountaineers’ 13-19 finish was the worst of any team in his career. It was just the third time he’d had a team finish below .500 — the other two coming in his first year at Walsh College in 1980-81 and then his first year at Akron in 1984-85.

It was the first time in 23 years a Huggins team had been completely left out of a postseason tournament, and it was the first time since Huggins returned to his alma matter prior to the 2007-08 campaign that WVU missed the NCAA Tournament.

For a coach who has won more than 700 games and been to a pair of Final Fours, it was simply unacceptable.

“I’ve never had it happen to me,” said Huggins. “I’ve never not been able to get guys to play as hard as I wanted them to play. Obviously, we had some deficiencies. We went into an entirely different league in terms of style of play, in terms of officiating and in terms of travel. We weren’t very prepared for it, quite frankly.”

That’s why Huggins spent the summer obsessing about how to get things fixed. Vacation time was very short. His focus was to get that taste out of his mouth, and he went to work on rebuilding the program.

Huggins took the floor on Monday with a roster that looked very different than the one that finished with seven straight losses last winter.

Gone were Deniz Kilicli and Dominique Rutledge, whose eligibility is complete. Gone were Aaron Brown, Aaric Murray, Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles, who decided to leave the program, perhaps with a little nudge from the coaching staff.

In their places were a new recruiting class that included junior college transfers Remi Dibo and Jonathan Holton and freshmen Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon, Brandon Watkins and Devin Williams.

Macon is not fully eligible to compete at this point, although he is enrolled at WVU. He’s also battling toe and shoulder injuries. Holton is eligible to practice but not play in games at this point. Huggins expects to learn more on his situation by the end of the week. Everybody else is full go, and Huggins is pleased with what he’s seen over the summer, when he had a few limited opportunities to spend time with his players.

“We put an emphasis on finding guys who can make shots,” said Huggins. “They’re capable of making shots. If they do or they don’t, I don’t know. But they’re very capable. Guys understand better about doing things they can do and staying away from things they can’t do.”

He’s also seen a major difference in attitude.

“I think their demeanor is so much different,” the coach explained. “Their enthusiasm has changed. What we’ve had (in the past) and what we lacked (last year) are a few guys that took to heart to not waste days.”

He’s also seen a difference in his returning players. Sophomore guards Terry Henderson and Eron Harris were two of the only bright spots last year as freshmen, and they spent the summer playing competitively and taking their games to a new level.

“I think the biggest difference with both those guys is their physical strength — that and their demeanor,” said Huggins. “They’re so much more confident. They know what they’re doing, and they know what’s expected of them. They’re not running around wondering what they’re supposed to do, and they both have done a really good job of trying to help the younger guys.”

Junior Gary Browne was anything but a bright spot last year, struggling to make shots and never really playing consistently. Huggins, though, hasn’t thrown in the towel on the 6-foot-1 guard, and he’s liked what he’s seen the last few months.

“I think Gary would be the first one to tell you he had a terrible year,” said Huggins. “I think that’s what we appreciate about Gary. We’ve got other guys that think it’s somebody else’s fault, and when you look at their stats, they couldn’t have had a worse year.

“Gary doesn’t blame other people. He knows he had a bad year, and he’s had a great attitude and worked hard.”

WVU’s offense was one of the worst shooting teams in the Big 12 a year ago, and Huggins has taken steps to address that issue. But during the first few weeks of practice, much of his focus will be on the other aspect of the game, an area that has defined Huggins’ teams throughout his career.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to stop them,” he said of his Big 12 foes, who he said play a much more spread style of basketball than what WVU saw in the Big East and don’t play as physical. “As bad as we were, if you go back and look at the games that we could have or should have won, Kansas State ties for the league championship and gave up 60 points per game. That’s pretty much what we used to do. If we give up 60, we have a chance to win a whole lot more games.”

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

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