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Mike Casazza: Changes afoot for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Whether it's for better or for worse depends on who you are, but Saturday is West Virginia's last home game and your last chance to see a disappointing team perform at the Coliseum this season.

You can't escape the feeling you won't see a few of those guys again. WVU was already certain to wave goodbye to one person. There are three seniors going out the door and four freshmen coming in over the summer. Someone was going to fall victim to the numbers.

But it's not going to be just one player. There's no way to have followed this team up close or from afar, to witness body language, eye rolls, stares and chilly chemistry. Or to hear Coach Bob Huggins vow, repeatedly, that he'll fix things, and not believe some of the younger Mountaineers are near their end on campus. It's become a sidebar to a story about a season gone so wrong in so many ways.

Deniz Kilicli, Dominique Rutledge and Matt Humphrey are seniors, but there's a group of 10 non-seniors for whom nothing is guaranteed a few steps past the 1:30 p.m. game against Iowa State on the Big 12 Network.

Well, almost nothing. Kevin Noreen is a limited player, but Huggins rightly admires Noreen more than anyone else on his roster because he sets an example not nearly enough of his teammates follow. He's safe. It would appear freshmen Terry Henderson and Eron Harris, the leading scorer who was a spare part at the start of the season, are safe.

"Obviously, our two freshmen are going to be good players," Huggins said.

"I can't imagine they'll do what these sophomores did and be significantly worse than they were this year. They'll be significantly better, I think, and they're going to be bigger and stronger and understand how to play a little bit better."

That last part is important. Harris and Henderson can carry backcourt scoring, but to date they've had issues with the other aspects and nuances of the college game, so much so that Huggins couldn't play them together and afford to have two iffy passers or rebounders or help defenders out there together.

That's changed of late. They've both improved, but Huggins has also lost trust, never mind faith, in a sophomore class he's recently grown to single out without vagueness.

So count Noreen, Harris and Henderson and add the incoming freshmen class of forwards Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon, Brandon Watkins and Devin Williams.

A college team gets 13 scholarships. Seven, we presume, are set.

There remain seven others with uncertain futures at WVU.

This is not to put them on display for Saturday, to say that the sophomore class with Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne, Aaron Brown and Keaton Miles might disappear, or that transfers Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray have played their way out of favor or that first-year sophomore Volodymyr Gerun might be over this particular experience.

But it's also not saying any different than what the Mountaineers have said. This is not a Big 12 Conference thing. It's not a period of adjustment. It's not what. It's who.

"It's us. Period," Harris said. "It's us, not these teams. We always have these teams beat or we're right there with these teams. It's not those teams. It's us, every single time."

When Huggins says, "I'll fix it," he's not talking about coaching better or harder. He's talking about who he coaches, who works harder to become better. He's coached this team and adapted to its parts, all the way to the end, when he decided to put in a third different offense as a complement to his preferred motion offense.

And WVU is better with the screens and the handoffs and the drives it's featured lately, mostly because it has removed the tricky task of passing the basketball without drama. But it's a quick fix, not a permanent one, just like the ones before it.

"They liked it when we went four high, too," Huggins said. "They liked it when we went dribble-drive. They like it until they can't score. Then they don't like it as much."

The problem is that no matter the offense, the players have encountered problems that transcend shooting. They dribble. They stand. They don't pass. They don't cut when an opponent is blatantly overplaying a passing play. They don't do so many of the things Huggins has grown to expect a college basketball player on scholarship to do.

"How do I say it?" Huggins said. "Our reactions to what people do defensively are less than stellar."

It's not limited to offense. The rebounding has disheartened Huggins, who, if nothing else, could once rely on his players to battle underneath the basket. These Mountaineers (13-17, 6-11 Big 12) peck and poke and let games be decided on the second shots opponents get and that they don't get.

The defense is indefensible on the perimeter, in transition and with regard to adhering to scouting reports. The collective trouble has forced Huggins to revisit recent history. Reminded Wednesday that he'd said after last season's NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga he'd never had a team as bad at defense, Huggins pounced.

"I was wrong," he said.

Huggins once went two days shy of two years between games his Mountaineers allowed 80 points. It's happened twice in five days and the Cyclones (20-10, 10-7) score better than all but three other teams in the country.

"I don't know what to tell you," Huggins said. "It's not like we don't work on things. It's like Groundhog Day every day. It's the same things every day. It doesn't matter who the other team is."

No, it matters who his team is and that figures to change.

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


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