With all of the excitement surrounding the West Virginia football program and its transition to the Big 12 Conference, it's easy to forget that the WVU basketball team will be making that same move.
The last time we saw the Mountaineers, they were bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round by Gonzaga. In one month, in its Nov. 13 season opener, WVU will have another crack at the Bulldogs.
However, this WVU squad will look much different from the one that clawed its way to a 10-seed in the tournament last season.
Gone are West Virginia's top two scorers, point guard Truck Bryant and All-American forward Kevin Jones. Because of these losses, WVU was tabbed at just No. 6 in the preseason Big 12 poll (via Big12Sports.com), a ranking that does not impress head coach Bob Huggins.
“Honestly, if we’re the sixth-best team in the league then it’s a hell of a league,” Huggins said (via WVUSports.com).
Training in their brand new practice facility, Huggins is pleased with the talent, development and conditioning of his squad so far.
“They are in great shape,” Huggins said. “Deniz (Kilicli) is in the best shape of his life. His body fat is way down. He’s running so much better. I think the only negative has been that we’ve had some guys kind of nicked up."
That last stipulation, injury, is one of the few concerns on the mind of Huggins heading into the season. His other concern is the rigorous schedule, though he is still expecting a successful campaign from this group.
"It’s going to be really hard with who we’re playing, but if we did what a lot of people do and play 18 home games and buy everybody in we can win 25 games with this group," Huggins said. “Most people would say that’s a pretty good team. Now we are probably not going to win 25 with who we play, but we’ve got a chance to be pretty good. I said that all along. I haven’t seen anything that would make me feel otherwise, other than guys getting hurt.”
West Virginia will be returning some key players including a lot of depth in the backcourt. Supplementing that existing depth will be a few big time transfers.
Sophomore guards Jabarie Hinds, Aaron Brown and Gary Browne will all be back after combining to average more than 18 points per game while rotating through the lineup last year.
Two true freshman guards, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson should also have a positive impact early on in Morgantown, however, the most significant additions have probably been through transfers.
The most notable may turn out to be Matt Humphrey—a graduate transfer from Boston College who will be eligible to play immediately. He averaged 10.3 points per game for the Eagles last year, while also tallying a team-high 34 steals.
“He’s got a pretty good idea of how to play,” said Huggins. “I think the first time I watched him play that is what impressed me more than anything was his understanding of how to play and how things happen. Plus, he can make shots. It’s kind of refreshing watching it go in sometimes. I haven’t seen that much.”
The WVU front court will be anchored by two key returners. Deniz Kilicli is back for his senior year after netting 10.7 points per game last season—a high among all returning players. Joining him up front will be a pair of sophomores, Keaton Miles and Kevin Noreen.
Noreen was solid off the bench last season until his year was cut short when he suffered a broken ankle. Miles, on the other hand, was a regular starter, though he averaged only 13.1 minutes per contest. It will be interesting to see how each of their roles expand this season along with that of senior Dominique Rutledge, a player who began to show improvement toward the end of last season.
The final two players who WVU fans are excited about are transfers Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten.
Murray, a LaSalle transfer who is the only true center on the roster for West Virginia, was a monster in his sophomore season for the Explorers, averaging 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
Staten, an Oak Hill Academy product, was also impressive in his freshman season for Dayton. An excellent distributor, he averaged 8.5 points and 5.4 assists per game, while leading the Atlantic 10 Conference with 190 total assists.
The backcourt will certainly crowded in Morgantown, which will be a good problem for Huggins to have.
As the beginning of the season draws near, the WVU coach will also be going through some contract adjustments.
Under Huggins, the Mountaineers have earned five consecutive NCAA tournament berths, including the school's first Final Four appearance since 1959, an accomplishment athletic director Oliver Luck believes is deserving of a little bit of compensation.
According to Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail, Luck and Huggins are working on restructuring his deal to add both length and financial benefit.
At age 59, Huggins has had some health concerns over his career, but as long as he is still passionate for coaching, he will stay the head coach at West Virginia.
“I want to do this as long as I’m excited about doing it, as long as I feel like I can bring the kind of passion to it that I’ve always brought,” Huggins said. “When it comes to where I say, ‘I just don’t want to go in there and do this,’ I need to quit.”
Fortunately for the Mountaineers, Huggins isn't near his quitting point, as they begin working toward their Big 12 basketball debut.