MORGANTOWN — It was an upbeat Bob Huggins, not the beat up Bob Huggins of a year ago, who came out of hibernation as his 2019-20 West Virginia men’s basketball team began practice on Tuesday for their summer excursion to Spain.
The Mountaineers leave for Spain on Aug. 3 and will play three games and do some sightseeing and team bonding before they return to Morgantown on Aug. 13.
Taz Sherman and Ethan Richardson will not make the trip due to class requirements in junior college. However, the heart of the team will be there, including Jordan McCabe, who underwent minor knee surgery in April but is back practicing and expected to be able to play.
Huggins envisions any number of things with this new team he is beginning to piece together. But none of it is the dark cloud that hung over last year’s 21-loss Mountaineer team that was torn apart from within.
“Oscar (Tshiebwe, the 5-star recruit who is the biggest step toward changing the team’s prospects and attitude) was the last one in,” Huggins noted. “They’ve taken him under their wing. You can’t tell the difference between the old guys and the new guys. Of course, the old guys are not that old.”
With the departures of Esa Ahmad, Lamont West, Beetle Bolden, Sagaba Konate and Wesley Harris — which pretty much was the heart and lack of soul of last year’s team — gone, Huggins is developing a new look as well as a new attitude.
Or perhaps he’s trying to develop his old look and his team’s old attitude.
“These guys get along great, hang together and are a lot like the really good teams we had in the past,” he said.
Where the older players became weights upon the direction the
program was trying to go last season, this team has a different feel to it, according to Huggins.
“A lot of it is the personalities,” Huggins said. “Jordan [McCabe] and Emmitt [Thomas] have been great trying to include everyone. They embraced some of the things we’ve always done.”
Huggins was talking of such team projects, such as visiting the WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital, skeet shooting and bowling. Although Huggins decided it would be best if he passed a night at the bowling alley.
“I’d drop one on my foot,” he deadpanned.
The difference with this group is in attitude partly because the team leaders are just in their second year here, not veterans like Ahmad, Bolden, West and Konate whose dyes were cast beyond establishing themselves as college players.
“This year you don’t have to coach enthusiasm,” he said. “A year ago, we had to coach effort and basketball, and it’s hard to do both.”
So what does he envision that will make this team different than it was?
“We are going to play Oscar and Derek Culver at the same time,” Huggins said.
Culver, of course, was the star of last year’s freshman class but was more a project than you might have imagined from someone so talented after he delayed coming to school a year to attend prep school.
He was a double-double machine ... after he sat out the first semester because of disciplinary problems.
They were not the kind of problems you normally associate with suspensions; it wasn’t so much getting into trouble as much as it was Culver just being irresponsible.
Huggins admits that even with a summer to work on it, all the corrections on that matter are not yet in place.
“How do I say this,” he said, hesitating after being asked the question. “He has a timeliness issue.”
Culver has a way of not showing up on time.
“We’ve got to make him understand he can’t do that,” Huggins said. “He has a long career ahead of him when he is out of here. It’s not bad stuff he does, when you think about guys doing bad stuff.
“But once in a while he doesn’t show up on time. We’re just trying to get him to the point where if and when he becomes a professional he’ll act like one.”
Huggins is drooling at the prospect of him and Tshiebwe on the floor together.
“A lot of rebounds ... yeah, a lot of rebounds,” Huggins said when asked what he expected from the two. “We can go back to dominating the glass like we did at one time. We haven’t played two bigs together like that since I played Kenyon Martin and Jermaine Tate together at Cincinnati.”
And that team went into the postseason as the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.