By Cam Huffman
After a less than impressive Big 12 debut, not much is expected of Bob Huggins’ WVU basketball team as it prepares for its second trip through the league. When the Big 12 men’s basketball preseason poll was released Thursday, the Mountaineers came in seventh out of 10 Big 12 teams, receiving 35 points from the league’s coaches to top only Texas (30), Texas Tech (14) and TCU (12).
Kansas and Oklahoma State tied for the top spot with 77 points and five first place votes, each. Baylor (63) was third, followed by Iowa State (56) at fourth and Kansas State and Oklahoma (43) tied for the fifth spot.
The Jayhawks will return sophomore Perry Ellis (5.8 ppg) and junior Naadir Tharpe (113 assists) from last year’s squad, but they’ll also be bringing in freshman Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top recruit out of Huntington Prep.
Oklahoma State will bring back last year’s Big 12 Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, as well as more than 95 percent of its scoring.
Competing at the level of those top two may be difficult for the Mountaineers, who finished 13-19 overall and 6-12 in conference play last year, but Huggins, who has been to two Final Fours and won more than 700 career games, expects to be much more competitive this season.
Just one week into practice, he said his rebuilding effort is going as planned.
Junior guards Gary Browne and Juwan Staten didn’t play well for WVU a year ago, and both spent some time in Huggins’ doghouse. But the veteran coach has liked what he’s seen from his two most veteran players in the early practice sessions.
“Gary admittedly had a bad year, and he’s playing much better,” said Huggins. “He’s put in time. He’s playing with more enthusiasm and shooting the ball much better.
“Juwan’s been really, really good. He’s been good from a leadership standpoint and knowing what we want done. He’s so much better, offensively. He’s not hesitating when he’s open to jump up and make shots, and he’s doing a better job at getting to the rim and finishing.”
The other junior, forward Kevin Noreen, provides the only returning experience in the frontcourt, and Huggins said he’s made strides, as well.
“I think he is a lot more confident, offensively,” said Huggins. “He’s spent a lot of time shooting the ball. He’s changed his mechanics a little bit, and he’s just confident. He’s not hesitating. When he’s got good looks, he shoots it. I want him to shoot when he’s open, and he’s going to get shots.”
The other inside players have no experience in the Mountaineer system.
Casper College transfer Remi Dibo has played some, but not at the Division I level. Jonathan Holton, out of Palm Beach State Community College, hasn’t been cleared to play.
The other post players are freshmen Devin Williams, Nathan Adrian, Brandon Watkins and Elijah Macon, who is also dealing with eligibility issues.
“Our inside guys obviously have a lot to learn with Kevin Noreen being the only one with any experience,” said Huggins, who said Adrian, a Morgantown High School product, has been the most impressive to this point. “But they’ve been really coachable. They listen, they’re trying and we’re going to get there. It’s just hard when you don’t have the background to do the things we want to get done.
“Big guys are used to just standing under the basket in high school. That’s pretty much universal. When you’re asking them to do other things, it takes a little bit of time.”
A pair of sophomore guards, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, have assumed leadership roles. They’re the two top statistical returnees — Harris was a preseason All-Big 12 honorable mention pick — and Huggins believes the younger Mountaineers are looking in their direction for guidance.
“The best leaders are guys that lead by example,” said Huggins. “A year ago, we just didn’t have a guy that we could look at and say, ‘Look how hard he works.’ I think we’re back to having that.”
WVU will open the season with an exhibition game against Fairmont State on Nov. 4. The regular season begins Nov. 8 at home against Mount St. Mary’s.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.