By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s puzzling basketball team moves into Big 12 play at 4 p.m. today as it hosts Oklahoma in a game that symbolizes the birth of a new era.
The Mountaineers have staggered through their non-conference play, a team in transition as it tries to blend in a trio of transfers who sat out last season with some veterans and talented freshmen.
They have won 7 and lost 5, one of the losses being an early season 77-70 defeat to the Sooners in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., a rare non-conference confrontation between conference opponents.
If the Sooners, 10-3, did anything to beat WVU in the first meeting it was to keep coming at them hard.
“They really beat us in transition the last time,” Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins said. “Their last six or seven baskets were either transition or second shots. They do a great job in transition, but they don’t have to do that.”
“It seemed every time we scored, they came right back at us,” recalled center Deniz Kilicli from the first meeting. “We have to get back on defense.”
Normally, West Virginia is the team that dictates the style and pace of the game, that being the recipe Huggins has used to accumulate more than 700 victories. His career record stands at 717-272.
Normally, upon entering conference play, you come in contact with teams you have played over and over.
“Generally I think it means more familiarity, but this year I don’t think that’s true,” Huggins said.
“You know, you play Georgetown year after year you know what you’re getting.”
Now though it’s a journey into the unknown on both sides, which normally is an advantage for WVU.
“I think what happens is when you play us, we’re not going to let you run your sets; we’re going to take you out of things to where you are playing a lot of ball screens,” Huggins said. “That’s pretty much what everyone we played has said for a long time.”
“How we play is different than everybody else,” Kilicli added. “When we were good, my sophomore year, no one scored their average. That’s what we have to get to.”
This is what Huggins has been preaching, but he’s had a lot of trouble getting through to this team.
“I can’t even get them in the right spot out of a timeout, and I always thought that was our great strength before,” he said. “With Da’(Sean Butler) and Devin (Ebanks), we could change on the fly.”
This team has had trouble running its sets, let alone making adjustments as it goes along. Part of it, of course, is that they just haven’t spent enough time with each other the floor so that everything comes without thinking about it.
“I think we are getting better,” Kilicli said, aware the team has won three straight. “We did whatever we can to get better. Huggs made sure we took care of what we need to. It’s on us.”
Part of it has been that they understand what they can and cannot do. This is not a good outside-shooting team, and that has led them over the past few games to be more physical and go at the basket harder and more often.
“We’re trying to get to the line more. We’re trying to spread people as much as we can spread people and get to the basket,” Huggins said.
The result is that the Mountaineers have been to the line 74 times in the past three games, free points, and points are precious at this stage of the year until Huggins can figure out a way to get some scoring going.
He’s even contemplating getting more outside shooting from his big men, in part because some of them, led by Aaric Murray, are good outside shots and because it opens the driving lanes to the basket.
“It’s kind of like what I did in Cincinnati one time. We kept clanging shots, so I told the big guys you get out there beyond the line and let the guards go inside and rebound and see how they like it. What happened was I had this guy Keith Starks start making them, then another guy made a few and it really changed what we did,” Huggins said. “Against the zone I put Starks out there and let him shoot it and made the guards rebound. I may do that here.
“It gets Aaric out where he can make some shots. I told those guards if they leave the outside to kick it back out to him because he makes those shots better than you do.”
Slowly, they seem to be moving forward but they are now out of time.
“I think we scored more points against them than anyone else,” Huggins of the 70 they scored on Oklahoma in the first meeting. “Their three losses, they scored 60 or less, so we have to do a good job of defending them.”
Email Bob Hertzel @email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.