By JOHN RABY, AP Sports Writer
Bob Huggins can’t help but put a positive spin on the prospects for West Virginia’s second season in the Big 12.
The veteran coach figures things can only get better for the Mountaineers after their first losing season in a decade.
West Virginia began practice Monday for the 2013-14 season, and Huggins said his players appear to be more enthusiastic than last year’s squad that stumbled to a 13-19 record, including a first-round exit in the conference tournament.
“I think their demeanor is so much different,” Huggins said. “I think what we’ve had and what we’ve lacked is a few guys that just took to heart to don’t waste days. They understand the importance of coming in every day and getting better.
“We’ve got a chance to win a whole lot more games.”
Yet with a lack of experienced players, Huggins may have to work some magic to avoid another year of disappointment.
Nine players are gone from last year’s team and the Mountaineers have just 12 on the roster, the second-fewest in the Big 12.
West Virginia lost its final seven games to end its streak of five straight NCAA tournament appearances.
The problems squarely fell on a lack of offense — the Mountaineers’ 66-point scoring average was seventh in the Big 12. West Virginia didn’t have a player averaging in double figures for the first time since 1944. At 9.8 points per game, Eron Harris became the first freshman to lead the Mountaineers in scoring since 1973.
There also was inconsistent defense, free-throw shooting, rebounding and a lack of focus. Huggins criticized his players’ poor intensity in practice and competing in bursts instead of at a consistent high level.
“We just didn’t do a really good job of a lot of things, obviously,” Huggins said.
Huggins said he was able to clear his mind a bit in the offseason, taking a few weeks’ vacation with his family, something he said he hasn’t done in a while.
“But really, I didn’t get away that much. Honestly, less than usual,” he said. “Usually I can kind of sneak out and get a little fishing in, and I got very little of that this summer.”
Huggins is the third-winningest active coach in Division I with 723 wins. That could have been much higher if not for his team’s struggles.
“That was a first,” he said. “I’ve never not been able to get guys to play as hard as I wanted them to play. And obviously we had some deficiencies.
“We went into an entirely different league in terms of style of play and in terms of officiating and terms of travel and everything else. And we weren’t very prepared for it, quite frankly.”
Center Deniz Kilicli graduated and several other players transferred or left the team, including forwards Aaric Murray and Keaton Miles and guard Jabari Hinds.
In addition to Harris, other top returners are guards Juwan Staten and Terry Henderson. Defensive specialist Remi Dibo is among several junior college transfers.
Huggins said he wasn’t sure whether the NCAA’s new practice rule will benefit his team with so many new faces. Teams can now conduct 30 days of practice in the six weeks prior to their first regular-season game.
“Ask me in a couple weeks. I’ll have a better idea,” Huggins said. “I wonder, you go three (days) on, one off, maybe you’re fresher? Not physically because those guys recover pretty fast, but I think mentally.”
Huggins wasn’t sure about the status of junior college transfer Jonathan Holton, who is eligible to practice but isn’t eligible to play. Huggins, without getting into specifics, said he hopes to have more answers soon. Holton played at Rhode Island as a freshman in 2011-12, averaging 10.2 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Huggins also said forward Elijah Macon has been cleared academically but has been bothered by a wrist injury that could keep him from playing this season.