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WVU basketball: Huggins at a loss for words

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia entered halftime Tuesday night with a 32-28 lead against a fledgling Robert Morris team that had lost three of four and was trying to blend its best player into the lineup after a four-game suspension.

This was happening at the Coliseum, too, where the Mountaineers had won 32 in a row both in December and against non-conference teams.

Just about everyone inside the locker room expected a heated Bob Huggins to lose his cool.

They got the opposite from the WVU coach. It was said to be surprisingly calm.

"I didn't know what to tell them," Huggins said. "How many times can I tell them to run the same offense? How many times can I tell them where they're supposed to be on defense? How many times can I tell then to go rebound the ball?

"It's not like we don't tell them. Surprisingly? What do they want me to tell them? 'Please play?'"

Eight games into the season, it's come to that for Huggins. He can't change the message, but will change the way it's delivered.

He managed to make his point, first taking out the five players on the floor just 24 seconds into the second half and then declining to put three of those five back in the game while letting the others cruise to an 82-49 victory.

Huggins has had to repeat basics from the beginning, like trust the offense, stop dribble drives and go after rebounds. He has bounced players from practice and benched them in games for bad habits he sees costing the team again and again.

He maintains confidence success is imminent for WVU (6-2). He's seen it happen too many times before.

"That's why they pay me," he said. "It's my job to make sure they do get better. Obviously, we weren't as good two yeas ago playing three freshmen in our top six, but we were a pretty good team at the end of the year."

And last year? WVU was beating Cleveland State at the buzzer in its eighth game. Devin Ebanks missed time for personal reasons. Joe Mazzulla was trying to heal his shoulder.

This year? Darryl "Truck" Bryant and Danny Jennings were made to sit out the VMI game. John Flowers and Kevin Jones are hurt and Huggins said Jones might miss practice before Sunday's game at Duquesne. A handful of players are either new or new to their roles.

The problems then weren't much different than what they are right now. This team, though, isn't as advanced as last year's.

How things ended last season with the Mountaineers in the Final Four for the first time since 1959 changed expectations for how this season was supposed to unfold.

"It takes a little bit of time," Mazzulla said. "We've grown since the Miami game (a 79-76 loss). We hadn't been put in a situation like that. It was our first true road game. It takes a little time and I'm sure with last year's success people expected to see it happen faster, but that's not going to happen. It's a completely different team."

Bryant and Jones were starters last season, though Jones has, by Huggins' estimation, relied too much on his jump shot this season and hasn't been as efficient a scorer or as active a rebounder.

The Mountaineers are asking John Flowers to start this year after playing a key reserve role in the past, but he has responded nicely with 9.3 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game.

Casey Mitchell has made the biggest leap. He was a seldom-used guard last year after falling behind with a knee injury. He's averaging 19.8 points now, but was 2-for-7 for six points Tuesday after going 5-for-15 for 20 points against Miami.

Deniz Kilicli was suspended by the NCAA for the first 20 games last year, but started the first seven games this year. He lost his starting spot Wednesday to Jennings, who was 3-for-4 for six points in the first half, but never returned after Huggins benched his starters in the second half. Jones and Mitchell also took a permanent seat against RMU.

"I wasn't displeased with Danny," Huggins said. "I thought Danny gave us gave us great effort. He just happened to be in that group that wasn't giving us anything."

Kilicli handled the maneuver quite well. He finished 6-for-8 and had 12 of his 14 points in the second half as he asserted himself against the smallish Colonials, who were outrebounded 48-25 and outscored in the paint, 44-8.

"He's just such a good guy and so damn charitable," Huggins said, poking fun at Kilicli's knack for turning the ball over. "We're trying to get him not to be so charitable. But I thought he really played with some strength in the second half. There were times they were grabbing all over him and he still got the shot up on the rim. He actually missed a shot and got his own rebound, which is a first. I think that's the first time he's ever done that."

Huggins said what happens next is up to the players. He wouldn't guarantee anyone expanded roles or playing time based on what happened against RMU. Those decisions, he said, would be based on practice.

"We're going to continue to get better," he said.  "We will get better."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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