The Times West Virginian

June 26, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Big 12 is reshaping with talent

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Kansas is reloading with the nation’s top recruit, Andrew Wiggins, right out of Huntington Prep. Oklahoma State is already loaded with Marcus Smart, who may be the best player in college basketball.

And West Virginia University?

Well, Bob Huggins is in the midst of a crucial summer in which he’s gone out and reshaped his West Virginia team so that this year it fits into the Big 12.

The conference held its annual summer coaches conference call and there was talk that Smart’s decision to return to Oklahoma State may break KU’s stranglehold on conference titles.

Certainly Huggins was impressed with Smart, sounding maybe as impressed with him as with any player he’s faced in recent years.

“I thought he was absolutely terrific,” the veteran coach said. “I don’t know that we’ve played against someone who controlled the game from the point guard position like he did since we played against Jason Kidd. He totally controls the game and has such a great will. Oklahoma State is extremely talented.”

Rather high praise, indeed, to compare him to Jason Kidd.

But as good as Smart is, Huggins stopped short of saying his returned presence will dethrone Kansas.

“I have a hard enough time trying to figure out what we’re doing,” he said when asked for a prediction. “I guess the older I get I don’t pay as much attention to what everyone else is recruiting. I’d have to take a closer look at that before I could give you a semi-intelligent answer.”

And that means taking a closer look at what Wiggins is going to do for Kansas in his first — and probably last — college season.

“He brings so much athleticism,” Huggins said. “He is a world-class athlete and a guy who is college ready in a lot of regards. Having played at Huntington Prep for two years and not at home, that’s more like a college atmosphere from a social aspect. Athletically, when everyone says you’re the best in the country, you’re pretty good.”

Kansas coach Bill Self knows what he has. In fact, the other day, he told USA Today that Wiggins’ arrival has been like getting a “rock star,” even though it’s only June.

“It’s weird to me because we’ve recruited other good players before, but we haven’t recruited anyone with this type of attention,” Self said. “I kind of feel for him; he’s going to have to tell people no. He’s gotta be able to be a kid.

“He hasn’t even made a basket yet, and the attention he’s received is based on potential. I think he should welcome expectations; there’s no reason for him to run from them because he’s going to have them no matter what.”

Wiggins gives Self a big-time guard. Smart is a big-time guard for Oklahoma State.

Huggins, meanwhile, is working out his guard situation, and one thing he is trying is using Eron Harris, his most dangerous scorer from a year ago, as a point guard.

“We recruited him as a combo,” Huggins said. “We had a couple of guys who were primarily point guards a year ago, so we didn’t play him there all that much. I think he embraced it. He gives us another guy on the floor who can score. I think it’s great to have a guy on the point who can score.

“What’s more, he gives you length and athleticism on the defensive side.”

Huggins’ point guards last year did not live up to their promise, Juwan Staten shooting just 38 percent and going 0-for-9 from 3-point range and Gary Browne shooting 32 percent.

Harris, if he can handle the point, gives Huggins a lot of options, but more important he is also showing signs of becoming the team leader with returning shooting guard Terry Henderson.

“They understood we lacked a little veteran leadership last year. Now, with all the minutes those guys played last year, they feel they are ready and willing and capable to lead,” Huggins said.

The more fluid a team Huggins can field, the better, for he believes the Mountaineers misunderstood what the Big 12 Conference was all about last year.

“It was a big learning experience,” Huggins said. “It was a different style of league from the one we came from. With that, the officiating was different. A year in we will be a lot better to deal with those things than we did a year ago.

“The style we had in the Big East was a whole different style. This was a league where they spread you. I think the Big East had classical 4 and 5 men while in this league people play smaller. It was more of a skill league.”

It’s a tough league in which to win because no fewer than six of the 10 coaches have been to the Final Four, with the addition this year of Tubby Smith at Texas Tech.

“It makes it hard,” Huggins said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a league where 60 percent of your coaches have been to the Final Four. That’s extremely impressive. Two of those guys have actually won a national championship. Tubby reminds me of that every time I see him, so I know he’s won one.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.