By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It has been the off-season since the off season, the first losing season in Bob Huggins’ career since he was being referred to by the local newspapers as “the former West Virginia guard,” if he was being referred to at all.
It ends today.
West Virginia University’s basketball season opens against Mount St. Mary’s around 8 p.m. today, following the women’s 5:30 p.m. opening at the Coliseum, and it doesn’t come a minute too soon.
“It’s been a long time, and we definitely didn’t have a good taste in our mouth after last season,” said point guard Juwan Staten, who is emerging as the leader of this team. “Any game activity we get is great, and the fact that this one actually counts makes it better.”
WVU is 89-15 all-time in season openers and 95-9 in home openers.
“I think everyone gets excited about the season opening,” admitted Huggins, who is beginning his seventh season at West Virginia and his 32nd as head coach.
Huggins has invaded the Top 20 all-time winners in the history of college basketball, standing No. 19 as he looks for his 724th this evening, but he does off a most forgettable 13-19 season.
He completely reshaped his team, conforming it more to Big 12 play after feeling the team was shaped more for Big East play than play in the Mountaineers’ new conference last year. Off-season injuries and eligibility problems, however, has WVU entering the season shorthanded, with just nine scholarship players and with a young, inexperienced group.
It is a group that must learn not only to play together but to also play under officiating that is emphasizing calling hand-check rules, a decision that could change the way the game is played. In WVU’s exhibition victory over Fairmont State earlier this week, 63 fouls were called and six players fouled out, five of them on the Fairmont team.
“That’s something we definitely are aware of; that’s why our coaches are putting so much emphasis on moving our feet and not putting our hands on them. That’s something we’ll have to deal with when the time comes,” Staten said.
How closely the games will be called is perplexing.
“It’s a little bit confusing because you expect all the refs to be on the same page. That’s something we’ll deal with when we get there,” Staten said. “We’ll come out early and see what type calls they are making and adjust.”
Meanwhile, Huggins must begin bringing along a team that is without an injured Terry Henderson and ineligible recruits Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton.
“I worry about us being able to win and get better at the same time,” Huggins said of the early season. “I think maybe we play too many people early because you have to win. If you don’t win, your chances of playing in the post-season aren’t good.
“But if you do that maybe you skip over some things, go too fast. Before there were times we did this.
“It’s just hard, because you don’t have enough stuff in. You see mismatches, situations where if you had the stuff in you could make an adjustment and attack the weakness of what they are doing. But if we call these guys over there they don’t have any background on what we are trying to do.”
And there is no secret formula for bringing young players along, no way of knowing by the look in their eyes if they have gotten something or not.
“You tell me what kind of look comes on their face. I flunked mind-reading,” Huggins said. “I don’t know. They make shots and you think it went on, then the next game they miss shots … does it mean it went off?
“Every situation is different. We’re going to play against 40 minutes of full-court pressure on Friday, and on Tuesday we’ll go to Blacksburg and we’ll play against a packed-in man-to-man or a packed-in zone. Does it mean if we play good against pressure but don’t against a packed-in zone that they had it and then lost it? I don’t know.”
Huggins’ teams usually are physical and inside-oriented, but this team will be different as he has gone along with the changes in the game and the play in the Big 12 Conference to become more of an outside, 3-point-oriented team.
“I think we are very capable of making shots,” he said after the Fairmont State exhibition victory. “A deal was made from the idea we shot (only) 41 percent for the game, but when you look at what we shot from 3, add in those 3s were worth 12 more points than what 2s would be, you take that 41 percent up and then add in we got to the free-throw line.”
That was an exhibition, and Huggins didn’t show much. Expect him to go more inside in this opening game, taking advantage of freshman Devin Williams’ inside play, while Staten and Gary Browne handle the point, Eron Harris does most of the scoring with freshman Nathan Adrian also bombing away from outside while Kevin Noreen does a lot of the dirty work.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.