Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 19, 2014

Huggins: Why be average?

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — There were some moments this season when West Virginia’s basketball team looked as good as any squad in the nation. A 102-77 thumping of No. 11 Iowa State and a 92-86 win over No. 8 Kansas showed just how far the Mountaineers had come after a 13-19 campaign a year ago.

There were other moments — like three lopsided losses to Texas and an uninspired effort against Georgetown Tuesday in the opening round of the NIT — that were a perfect reminder of just how far the program has dropped since a Final Four appearance in 2010.

Put it all together and WVU’s 17-16 season, which ended with the loss to the Hoyas Tuesday, was something head coach Bob Huggins can’t stand — average.

“Why would you want to be average?” said the veteran coach, who missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since early in his career at Cincinnati. “Why not work a little harder to be great?”

That’s the message Huggins is trying to send to his team as in enters the offseason looking to get back to the level of Elite Eights and Final Fours that Huggins set upon his return to his alma mater in 2008.

The pieces seem to be in place. After failing to even be competitive in their first season in the Big 12, the Mountaineers beat all of the league’s top teams, except Texas, this time around and finished 9-9 in sixth place in the 10-team league. That’s a step in the right direction for a club that won just six conference games — all against the league’s bottom teams — last season.

“I would definitely say we’re getting better,” said junior point guard Juwan Staten, who played a huge role in that turnaround, leading the Big 12 in steals and assists on his way to first-team all-conference honors. “Just the fact that we played in the postseason this year — as opposed to last year, being done right after the conference tournament — means that we are definitely headed in the right direction.”

Without a single senior on the roster, WVU has a reason to believe it can make a similar leap in 2014-15.

That is, of course, if Staten chooses to return instead of trying his hand at the NBA.

“I think the appropriate thing to do is send film into the NBA,” said Huggins of that process. “They get back to you pretty quickly. They poll general managers, and in my experience they’ve been very accurate.

“I don’t blame (players) for testing the waters. I just want them to make a good decision. It’s a huge decision to leave. (Juwan) will have his degree, so this isn’t about education. But there’s nothing like playing college basketball.”

Staten didn’t sound like an athlete planning on walking away when he discussed the future with reporters Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.

“We have a couple players that have set out last year, some players that can help us get better,” he said. “We have freshmen that are going to be sophomores. Everybody is going to have another year of experience under their belts.”

Those new additions include 6-foot-7 junior forward Jonathan Holton and 6-9 freshman Elijah Macon, who were both ineligible this season but are fully expected to be available next winter.

“Jonathan Holton’s length is going to be really good, and that will help us a bunch,” said Huggins. “Elijah has a strong body. The kids that we’ve signed (guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles) bring much needed athleticism. But the core of our program has to be those guys in that locker room. They’ve got to set the tone and make that commitment to be special.”

Along with Staten, who averaged 18.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds, WVU returns guards Eron Harris (17.2 ppg) and Terry Henderson (11.7 ppg), who will be juniors, and a trio of freshmen in Devin Williams, Nathan Adrian and Brandon Watkins, who learned a great deal about the college game this season.

Gary Browne, a backup guard, will be a senior, as will sharp-shooting big man Remi Dibo.

That experience, Staten believes, will help the Mountaineers take yet another step, providing it picks up its game on the defensive end.

“Defense is definitely going to be something we stress a lot,” said Staten, whose team finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring defense, allowing more than 73 points per game. “Playing for Coach Huggs, he always stresses defense. With another year of experience, the defense should get better, too.

“Looking back to my freshman year, I was a terrible on-ball defender. But as you get older and you play more games, you get used to the college game and certain things that are going to happen on the court. You get smarter and better with time.”

The work, Huggins said, starts immediately in the weight room and in the gym.

“What’s so great about our game is that you can’t cheat it,” he said. “You can’t cheat basketball. Basketball is going to win. If you don’t put the time in, you won’t get anything back. It’s like a girlfriend. If you don’t pay any attention to her, she’s probably going to treat you badly. That’s basketball. If you don’t treat the game with respect and don’t put time into it, it’s not going to treat you very good. We’ve got to fall in love with basketball.

“I think we’ve got some guys that will do that. I think we’ve got some guys that will put the time in. I can’t do it. They have to do it. I can give them the map, but I can’t drive them. Now they have GPS and all that, but back in the day if you wanted to go to Grand Rapids, you had to get a map. You didn’t just take off. That’s where we are.”

That map certainly won’t point to any NIT locations. Huggins’ directions for next season include only on destination — the NCAA Tournament.

—chuffman@ . Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.