WVU basketball: Lack of experience will be challenge for Huggins, Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bob Huggins is about to begin his 30th season as a college basketball coach and his fifth year at West Virginia.
So many times before or after his 691 victories, Huggins has said there isn't much he hasn't seen along the way.
Yet when the Mountaineers open the 2011-12 season with tonight's exhibition against Division II Northern Kentucky, not even Huggins can say what will happen.
"I don't have any idea," he said.
This is what happens when you return just four letter-winners, only three of which played a significant role last season. WVU, which has won at least 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament in all four seasons with Huggins, faces the challenge of inexperience this year.
Preseason All-Big East first team forward Kevin Jones and guard Truck Bryant are the only seniors. Forward Deniz Kilicli is a junior. Forward Kevin Noreen played only briefly last season before injury forced him into a medical redshirt.
Huggins unveils seven first-year scholarship players at 7 p.m. at the WVU Coliseum: Freshmen guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds and freshmen forwards Aaron Brown, Tommie McCune, Keaton Miles and Pay Forsythe and junior college forward Dominique Rutledge.
Rutledge was suspended indefinitely last month, but Huggins said he has reinstated Rutledge, who attended, but did not play at Western Texas Community College last year.
He hasn't practiced much and might not play tonight because Huggins wants to work with people who know what they're doing, which isn't always easy with this group.
"The hardest thing is to convince them to throw it to the guys in the same color shirt they have on," Huggins said. "We turn it over. It's been very repetitive. We keep throwing the ball to the wrong team and that really hurts your defense. There's no defense for that."
Huggins and his WVU teams have both been defined by defense and Huggins said the younger players are quickly getting used to what college basketball demands. WVU's halfcourt defense has improved as the team moved closer to the start of the season.
"It's a lot better than what it was," Huggins said. "We can guard a ball screen now. I'm not sure we can guard the next ball screen and the next ball screen in a possession. That's where we've got to get to. Our league has become pretty much that - grind it out and either get a ball screen or spread people out and take them off the bounce and create."
Huggins has worries about his offense, too. He plans to use Bryant as the shooting guard. That's his natural position, but circumstances made him play point guard his first three seasons. Browne and Hinds are the new point guards, but like Bryant, Hinds played shooting guard in AAU and high school.
The NCAA also kept Brown from joining the team for its exhibition games in Sicily and Italy over the summer. Hinds didn't enroll until after that.
"We haven't been able to really see them yet," Huggins said. "The only time we got to see them was (last Saturday's scrimmage) against Xavier -and Xavier is pretty good. I think I have a little better feel for all the other guys because of the five games we played in Italy."
Huggins said Bryant, Jones and Kilicli will start and the other two spots would go to Brown or Hinds and Miles or McCune. He said the 6-foot-10 Noreen will play a lot, too, and is versatile enough to play with Jones and Kilicli.
The Mountaineers also have walk-on guards Aric Dickerson and Logan's Paul Herbert Williamson. They think highly of both, particularly Dickerson, a noted shooter from Chicago. WVU is down two available scholarship players because guard Juwan Staten and center Aaric Murray have to sit out after transferring from Dayton and LaSalle, respectively.
Northern Kentucky has former WVU point guard Darris Nichols and former WVU graduate assistant Kevin Schappell on its coaching staff. The Norse led Marshall by five points at halftime Tuesday, but fell behind when the Thundering Herd started the second half with 14 straight points and a 25-3 run. Marshall won, 65-55.
The Mountaineers open their season at home Nov. 11 against Oral Roberts, the preseason favorite with two players on the preseason All-Summit League team. WVU then plays host to Kent State at 10 a.m. Nov. 15. The Golden Flashes, two-time defending regular season champions, were named the preseason favorite in the Mid-American Conference.
Two weeks and three games later, WVU plays host to Akron, which was second to Kent State in the MAC poll. Then comes a game at Mississippi State, against Kansas State in Wichita, Kan., and at home against Miami in seven days.
After a seven-day break, the Mountaineers play host to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Tennessee Tech in preliminary play for the Las Vegas Classic. WVU then travels to Las Vegas and plays back-to-back games against Missouri and Baylor. All of that happens in six days. Big East play begins at home Dec. 28 against Villanova.
"I think sometimes you can overschedule and I think we probably overdid it with this group," Huggins said. "I really want our fan base to see good teams and I don't think sometimes our fan base realizes that.
"A year ago, we brought Cleveland State here and played against a first-round (NBA) pick. I kept saying they were good and people were like, 'OK, yeah, right.' The people who were here certainly appreciated it. That was a good basketball team and (guard) Norris Cole is a pretty good player.
"Kent State will be every bit as good and probably even better. They're very good. Oral Roberts has their top seven leading scorers back. When I said Oakland was good last year, everyone said I was trying to be Lou Holtz, but (center) Keith Benson is a pro. You want to do that. The flip side is you want to win. Kent State is going to be a top 50 team, but it only helps you if you win it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.