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Capital Classic: Mountaineers center still has a ways to go

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Aaric Murray is not ready to be judged for the way he's played in his first five games for West Virginia.

That's because he plans to improve.

"On a scale from 1 to 10," said the 6-foot-10 center, who transferred last year from La Salle, "I'm a 6."

That's still good for 10.2 points and seven rebounds per game and a 55 percent field goal percentage, with the latter two leading the team. His most recent game was his best as he had 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in Wednesday's victory against VMI.

That, he said, was what a 6 looks like.

"I feel as though if I was in shape, I'd have 15 rebounds and five blocks every game," he said. "The offense is coming and I feel like I'll be able to get 15 rebounds and five blocks, and if one of my guards gets beat by his guard, I can give help more and talk more. It's hard to do that stuff, to lead, when you're just trying to breathe."

Murray has been around long enough to understand what WVU Coach Bob Huggins wants to do on offense and how Huggins wants Murray to play on defense.

He just can't do it yet. Murray broke his right hand last year and hardly practiced with the Mountaineers.

His abilities haven't quite caught up with his potential.

That's been further slowed by his conditioning. His inactivity last season was followed by back problems over the summer that prevented him from starting the preseason in shape.

"I need to work on my stamina so I can be consistent every play," he said. "If coach needs me to be in there, I need to be able to stay in there and not need oxygen, not need a mask to breathe."

Murray, a 245-pound junior who had the second-most blocks in a career (143) and a single season (73) at La Salle, said he need just a few more games to find his form. That starts with Wednesday's Capital Classic against Marshall.

The Mountaineers (2-3) and the Thundering Herd (5-3) play at 7:30 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center, and the game will be televised by the Capital Classic Network on stations in Charleston (WOWK), Clarksburg (WBOY), Wheeling (WTRF), Parkersburg (WTAP) and Chambersburg, Pa. (WJAL).

"It's just body fatigue," Murray said. "It's getting up and down the floor fast. I haven't done that in a while."

Murray has played every game, though he did sit out the first half of the Marist game in the Old Spice Classic. He's started the other four, but plays just 21 minutes per game - lowest among the starters and less than backup guard Gary Browne.

He hasn't played a string of games, though, since March of 2011 when he was with the Explorers. Murray was a force and led the team in scoring (15.2), rebounding (7.7) and blocks (2.3) and ranked eleventh, seventh and third, respectively, in the Atlantic 10.

Murray then left the Philadelphia school and his hometown that summer for WVU, which he visited and nearly picked coming out of high school two years earlier. His transition was slowed by the hand injury, and he's had to deal with side effects this season.

"I'm not even comfortable playing games," he said. "It's still been almost two years since I've been on a big stage."

The easy win against VMI was WVU's home opener. In the early moments, Murray was running hard after a steal and had a pass pushed ahead to him. He hurried to gather the ball, line up the basket and take off for a layup, but lost the ball on the way up and hit his hand on the bottom of the rim.

He would laugh about it later.

"That's just being nervous after not being out there for a while," he said.

Huggins would later pull Murray from the game because he said he didn't think Murray was playing hard enough, or at least harder than others Huggins used to pull away from the Keydets and turn the game into a blowout win.

Huggins later put Murray back in the game and he said Murray played "a lot harder," and his teammates noticed the benefits on the defensive end. WVU's guards forced nine steals and said they played aggressive because they knew Murray was the next line of defense.

"We can pressure the ball and deny the ball and take them out of their plays because we trust him," Browne said. "You don't have to worry about taking chances or getting back-cut because we've got a guy like him back there to block shots. Even if he doesn't block shots, he changes shots."

Murray got to a pair of shots, but just missed on others. Huggins called it progress, but said Murray "isn't close" to where the Mountaineers believe he can be.

"I need him to play hard all the time," Huggins said. "I need him to play hard after I call a timeout to rip him. I need him to play hard all the time. He didn't start out playing hard and he didn't start out guarding very well, but we know if we're going to be good, we need him to play hard for 40 minutes."

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


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