WVU basketball: Mountaineers will need to undergo major remodeling
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Having worked at five schools in his 29 seasons as a college head coach, Bob Huggins probably has done more building than rebuilding of basketball programs.
His 30th season, however - and fifth at West Virginia - appears to be one that could be more the exception than the exceptional.
That said, it would be unwise to underestimate Huggins, who has had only one season of fewer than 20 wins in his last 19 winters on the sidelines. Also, there are his 2010-11 Mountaineers to consider.
The club that finished 21-12 with Saturday's NCAA round-of-32 loss to Kentucky was Huggins' best coaching job, considering whom he had, how they played and who they faced.
He milked the Mountaineers to a tie for sixth place in the deep Big East - which has had its foibles in this NCAA Tournament, to be sure.
He got an NCAA fifth seed from a bunch of role players, many of who played those roles inconsistently.
What Huggins had, in many ways, was a bunch of thorough men like Cam Thoroughman, players who knew what Huggins wanted and when, and doing it to the best of their abilities, if with limitations.
And at season's end, Huggins likely felt the frustration about more than exiting the NCAA Tournament by the "real" second round (of 32) for the 13th time in his 19 trips to the Big Dance. You can only squeeze a lemon and get so much juice, right? They played to their NCAA fifth seed, losing to a No. 4 Kentucky that was much younger and, as Huggins said after the loss, "really, really talented."
These Mountaineers got where they did because they had a veteran coach with a veteran team that had guys who had been to an NCAA Final Four and grasped what needed to be done to get back - even if they couldn't always do it.
In the Big East, only Notre Dame and St. John's had more minutes from veterans. Nationally, WVU ranked 21st in "experience" (the average class year per minutes played). That's a lot to lose, on the heels of what exited after that 2010 national semifinal run.
What should have been Huggins' 2010-11 freshman class was a washout and knee-repaired Kevin Noreen. What figured to be a big-body sophomore rebounder (Danny Jennings) walkoff.
The Mountaineers lose five seniors, and what Huggins and the 2011-12 team need, at first blush, is a leader among those in uniform.
In forward Kevin Jones and guard Truck Bryant, WVU could return two double-figure scorers (and 1,000-point career men) who will be seniors ... unless Jones leaves for the NBA, which makes' Huggs' cupboard really bare.
Neither has emerged as a leader. Jones struggled to find his game when he no longer could be a complementary part to graduated Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith and NBA early entry rookie Devin Ebanks.
As for Bryant, WVU became a better team when Huggins had no choice but to play Bryant and senior Joe Mazzulla together once disappointing senior Casey Mitchell was suspended. Huggins had avoided playing Bryant and Mazzulla together because he feared point guard foul trouble in tandem.
What the coach got, when he had little option, was a better club because Mazzulla is a much better point guard than Bryant, and better defender than Mitchell. On a team that lacked much athleticism except senior forward John Flowers, Mazzulla's added presence and minutes made WVU smarter and tougher.
What also helped was that down the stretch, WVU, while it had a run of seven games against ranked foes in the final nine of the regular season, also had five of eight at home. The Mountaineers were 12-2 at the WVU Coliseum, and 9-10 away from Morgantown.
In Mazzulla, Flowers, Thoroughman and Jonnie West, Huggins loses what remained of the one-time catch-shoot-screen players brought in by former Coach John Beilein. All of what's there or will be there are Huggins' guys now. There just aren't enough of them.
There are Jones and Bryant, and Turkish hook-happy Deniz Kilicli, junior-to-be Dalton Pepper and the 6-foot-10 Noreen, who played only 39 minutes before surgery. Kilicli doesn't rebound or defend the way Huggins wants, and next season WVU needs Kilicli and Pepper to make marked improvements.
Pepper, until his breakout steals at the end of the NCAA opener against Clemson, really hadn't contributed much in two seasons except relief minutes. In the loss Saturday to UK, Pepper was 0-for-2 in 20 minutes. In two seasons, he has shot .367 and .357 percentages.
Huggins needs scorers and shooters (and don't confuse the two). In a six-man recruiting class, he has players who must a lot and quickly. Four of the six are 6-7 or taller.
According to Hoop Scoop's most recent ratings, West Virginia is getting three of the nation's top 115 prep signees - point guard Jabari Hinds (No. 69; named 10 days ago as the co-winner of Mr. Basketball in New York), wing player Aaron Brown (95) and small forward Keaton Miles (115).
Huggins needs these guys to stay and to play ... and one thing he doesn't do is back off on the schedule, because he understands that is part of the puzzle that can put your team in position for Selection Sunday.
I think WVU could have won two or even three fewer Big East games (it went 11-7) and still gotten into the Bloated Bracket, and that was because it had played a strength of schedule ranked fourth (overall) and third (non-conference).
The younger Mountaineers will face (besides 18 Big East games) non-league dates against Purdue, Kansas State, Marshall, Duquesne, Miami (Fla.), Morehead State, perhaps a "big" mid-major (think a Butler, Xavier, Gonzaga type) and three games in the Las Vegas Classic.
In other words, Huggins and WVU hoops will be into major construction this year on more than a spiffy practice facility.
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-7949.