Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

January 15, 2014

WVU is on right path but far from hoped place

MORGANTOWN — The most important thing Bob Huggins had to do in the offseason was wave some sort of recruiting magic wand and make his West Virginia men's basketball team more athletic.

"We had some plodders last year," the WVU coach said.

This team does not, which is good news for the Mountaineers, who look to end a two-game losing streak Saturday at Kansas State. They are better this season because they have better basketball players. And yet, Huggins can rattle off a list of Big 12 teams that are still more athletic than his.

Begin, of course, with Oklahoma State and Kansas. They are obvious choices, but they have company.

"I think Texas Tech is more athletic than we are," Huggins said. "Oklahoma. Texas."

Yes, certainly Texas after Monday night's mismatch in which the Mountaineers (10-7, 2-2 Big 12) admitted to being outmanned and bullied while -

"...Baylor," Huggins continued. "Should I keep going?"

No need. Point made, point taken. Yet the list would have been longer last season, Huggins said, if not for who the Mountaineers added to this team. They increased their agility by recruiting freshmen Devin Williams, who has five double-doubles, and Brandon Watkins, who is certainly the most explosive of WVU's big players, and by adding junior college forward Remi Dibo, who, if nothing else, efforts.

Throw in a reborn Juwan Staten with sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson in expanded roles and WVU is more athletic, which is one reason it can shoot and score so much better this season, Monday's performance notwithstanding.

The Mountaineers are No. 29 nationally in points per possession (1.15), a measure of efficiency and effectiveness that Huggins has revealed he treasures.

"We've got more guys who are more capable," Huggins said.

Huggins also recruited freshman forward Elijah Macon and junior college forward Jonathan Holton, though neither is eligible to play this season. They'll delay their contribution until next season, when they'll help Watkins and Williams and the rest of the pack of players who have to work in concert to rebound the ball.

"Hopefully getting those two guys in next year, we won't have to have one guy go out and get 10 rebounds," Huggins said. "We may have a bunch of guys who go get it."

For now, though, WVU remains just an above-average team in athleticism in a league that rewards that skill. The Mountaineers can't change it and must live with it, play with it and win with it. Or else. That itself is a skill and one Huggins has had to instruct and enhance.

"You try to keep (opponents) out of transition," Huggins said. "The best way to keep them out of transition is to score. We need to take quick shots, but we need to be selective in quick shots. What you can't do is bang it off the front of the rim. It's an outlet pass and they're just off to the races."

If WVU can use its quickness to get quick shots, it keeps the defense from setting up and outmanning the Mountaineers and it keeps the defense from setting up and outrebounding the Mountaineers.

WVU loitered a lot on offense against Texas and its long defenders Monday and ended up losing the rebounding battle by 19.

The Longhorns, who did a lot of their rebounding in a zone, were quite content and quite good at taking a defensive rebound and running the other way. There are some teams WVU will gladly run with, but there are also some, like Texas, that WVU can't engage. If the Mountaineers can't run or can't get early shots, it limits the likelihood they score because there isn't much else they can do for simple points.

"We have a hard time scoring with our back to the basket," Huggins said. "If you sit down and look at a play card and say, 'We need a basket,' we're not really looking to throw it close. We're trying to get somebody else a step-in shot or get penetration. You can attack the basket from the post and do it by bouncing it, which is more in line with what we have to do. I haven't had very many teams like this that can't score it close."

The Mountaineers have done a decent job with offensive rebounds, collecting a little more than a third of their misses, which is a good number for a smallish team that shoots it as well as WVU does. That has helped at times by forcing the defense to send other players to rebound and not leak out for transition opportunities.

When the other team does get the ball, WVU has to be creative because, as Huggins said, "we don't guard." The Mountaineers allow a lot of drives and have only the 220-pound Watkins as a credible shot-blocker. Their man-to-man defense is not close to what it's been in the past and Huggins has tried a variety of zones, all with the same goal of protecting his players as best as he can and putting someone in the gap between an opponent and the basket.

"We're trying to gap things, but we've never had to gap this much," he said. "We used to put them where we wanted to put them and then send a second defender, but that's harder now. So we're trying to gap things more and we don't do a very good job of it, but we try."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com

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