By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
“If we’re the sixth-best team in the league, it’s a hell of a league.”
– West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins, after being picked sixth in the Big 12 in the coaches’ men’s basketball preseason poll.
You got the sense that Bob Huggins feels almost reborn.
Oh, he says his back still hurts when he gets out of bed in the morning, but it’s obvious that he enjoys getting out of bed a whole lot more as he begins his sixth season as West Virginia University basketball coach, enough so that he can joke about it with his new center, Aaric Murray.
Murray has missed some offseason training time with a bad back, but when he brings it up to Huggins, his reply always is, “My back hurts every day. Wait until you’re my age; you’ll be pulling yourself out of bed.”
As Huggins met with the media on Thursday, he looked refreshed, even young for his 58 years.
And that was directly related to the basketball team that he will field this season.
It is more his kind of team than last year’s or even the team Da’Sean Butler led into the Final Four. It is a team that will press and run and play defense and block shots and rebound and do it without any player for the defense to focus on like Kevin Jones or Butler.
Save for Deniz Kilicli, the lone returning senior, it is mostly an anonymous team, but he warns you should not confuse anonymous with untalented.
The Big 12’s preseason poll of the coaches had been announced just a short while earlier, and Kansas — who else? — was picked to win the Big 12 with Baylor second, Oklahoma State third, Texas fourth and Kansas State fifth.
WVU was sixth, and Huggins’ response to that was telling.
“If we’re the sixth-best team in the league, it’s a hell of a league,” he said. “This is a team that if I scheduled it that way could win 25 games. We probably won’t because of who we play, but we have a chance to be pretty good. I have not seen anything to make me think different.”
The schedule opens at Gonzaga on Nov. 12 and includes a meeting with Michigan in Brooklyn, N.Y., along with competition in the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., while also interrupting league play for a game at Purdue.
The change in style this year was long thought out, for Huggins inherited a different type of team when he arrived here. Not a bad team, mind you. In fact, a very good one with good players, but his inborn brand of basketball called for something different.
Last year proved to be something of a struggle as the Mountaineers finished just 19-14, hurt by injury and by a lack of athleticism, having to build the team around the scoring skills of Kevin Jones.
“It was a long year,” Huggins noted. “We practiced in the summer, went to Europe, came home and then school started and practice. This year we’re more rested, more eager.”
And, more importantly, more athletic.
He gets a true shot blocker and athletic center in the aforementioned Murray, a transfer from LaSalle who not only sat out last year but did so with a broken hand for much of it, which cost him practice time. He also gets a slick point guard in Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, who is an accomplished passer who should allow him to use Gary Browne and Jabarie Hines at off guard and using all three of them to run the court.
“I think we can score in transition, which we couldn’t do last year,” he said. “Let’s be honest; last year if we were two on one, there was just as good a chance of us throwing the ball away as getting a basket.”
This season he has had Kilicli work on his mobility, developing him to fit and bring his leadership skills to a different kind of team, one that will still feature him up front with Murray while returning forwards Kevin Noreen, Keaton Miles and Dominic Rutledge give athleticism up front.
A key addition is another transfer, Matt Humphrey, a senior guard who comes in from Boston College after scoring 10.3 points a game last year. He does not have to sit out because he has a degree and also sat out a year when transferring from Oregon State to B.C.
Huggins also believes he will get a lot of skill help in the frontcourt from newcomer Volodymyr Gerun, a 6-10 forward out of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine … as soon as either Gerun’s English gets better or Huggins’ Ukranian.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.