By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There was, shall we say, a new hitch in West Virginia University’s giddy-up, as practice began Friday afternoon, a lot of shouting, hand-clapping and the kind of enthusiasm you wouldn’t expect from a team that two days earlier had traveled to Texas, played a bruising overtime game, had their travel plans scrambled and hadn’t returned home until 7 the next morning.
But there they were, riding the crest of that first-ever Big 12 victory, running through drills that were more like football Oklahoma drills than anything Dr. James Naismith ever had in mind as they readied themselves for yet another war of attrition at 1:30 p.m. today at the Coliseum against a physical Kansas State team that leads the nation in offensive rebounding.
Off to one side assistant coach Ron Everhart was rolling balls toward the sidelines as players dived after them, ignoring the floor burns that would hurt later, while driving down the lane while lowering his shoulder and delivering a charge was video coordinator Josh Eilert, who stands about 6-5 and is put together like a tight end.
Things, it seemed, had changed for the Mountaineers since they set sail for Texas and returned.
“We were tired; guys came with great energy and enthusiasm. I’m not sure a couple of weeks ago we would have had that. We might have turned the page here,” forward Kevin Noreen said.
In many ways, he and his physical style of play were responsible for that change, for taking a team that had no identity and no direction and helping it learn that it could be physical, could be tough and could overcome some of its shortcomings this way.
Kansas State comes into the building ranked in both polls, although they aren’t very much in agreement where, holding down No. 18 and No. 23 spots with a 12-2 record.
They, of course, once were coached by Bob Huggins, who spent a year there before WVU came calling him back home, and he turned the team over to his assistant Frank Martin, who preached the same physical brand of basketball that he preaches.
Martin left after last season and turned the team over to Bruce Weber, who isn’t exactly the same kind of coach but who has players who play that brand of ball, meaning this game figures to be a lot of body slamming.
“Last year we went two overtimes,” center Deniz Kilicli said. “They play the same kind of basketball. After Coach Martin left they changed a little bit. They have a bunch of sets they run, but they still rebound the ball well and are really aggressive on the offensive end of the floor.”
“They still stick to a lot of what Coach Martin taught them. They are still tough. They get after the ball hard,” Noreen noted.
Senior Rodney McGruder is the leading scorer, averaging 14.7 points a game as the Wildcats’ only double-figure scorer, while Thomas Gipson is a power rebounder who makes life difficult under the basket.
Huggins knows what his team is up against.
“McGruder’s shooting the ball a lot better. He shot it before, but he’s a lot more consistent,” he said. “They lead the country in offensive rebounding, so we have to keep them off the glass.”
Shooting is where WVU has to find some improvement. Even with the victory over Texas, scoring points was not exactly a positive.
Shooting from the floor and 3-point shooting have been producing anything but highlight reels.
In the victory over the Longhorns, the Mountaineers missed their first 14 3-point shots and were in danger of ending a streak of 436 games making a 3 until Noreen, who is the team’s best 3-point threat even though he is a power forward, hit one with just under 4 minutes left.
Even in Big 12 play now at 1-1 and with still a rugged schedule ahead, including a made-for-TV trip to Purdue next week, home games such as this one grow in importance after a rough start.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.