With a roster of 15 scholarship players due to waivers from the 2020-21 Covid-hampered season, West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins has plenty of options to mix and match as basketball practice opens on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
“We’ve got a lot of guys. Fifteen guys is a lot. The last time I had 15 I was at Walsh College,” Huggins joked, calling back to his stint at the Ohio small school (1980-83).
WVU lost three transfers and two players to early departures (Deuce McBride and Derek Culver) from last year’s squad, and the holes left, especially by the latter pair, mean the Mountaineers will look significantly different in style of play. Gone is the pound-it-inside first option, and in its place will likely be more open sets, with more players on the perimeter.
WVU looks to be fully stocked with shooters with Taz Sherman, Sean McNeil and Jalen Bridges ready to range the 3-point line. Isaiah Cottrell, fully cleared after rehabbing an Achilles tendon tear suffered at the end of 2020, is also most comfortable shooting from long range. What’s needed now, at least at first read, is a point guard and post scorers, but Huggins noted that the former might not be critical.
“As soon as those guys see a crack they are going to shoot it, and we want them to shoot it,” Huggins said of his distance snipers with a smile, mixing a bit of a joke with more than a kernel of truth. “I don’t think we need a traditional point guard. We have a lot of guys who can handle the ball, and they are getting better with their ball skills. I think it will come down, in a lot of instances, as to what the match-up is and where we put them around the circle.”
West Virginia brought in transfer Malik Curry from Old Dominion as a competitor at the point, and Huggins notes he might be the fastest player on the team. Freshman Kobe Johnson has also shown some promise in the ball distribution area.
“Kobe handles the ball a lot better than what we imagined. He might have the best ball security on the team, and he passes it well,” Huggins shared. “His physicality, he’s far and away the best in terms of being physical and strong with the ball.”
Offensive post play inside appears to be weighing more heavily on Huggins’s mind. While noting that losing McBride is significant, he spent several minutes discussing what Culver’s departure means.
“We don’t have a Derek Culver. We don’t have that big strong guy. Derek could get hard rebounds. He got clutch rebounds and big rebounds at the end of games,” said Huggins. “We don’t have that this year. We are much smaller overall. We shoot it a lot better, and Taz and Sean can really make shots. But what we are lacking right now is somebody that we can throw it close to and score.”
The Mountaineers did bring in Dimon Carrigan and Pauly Paulicap, both fifth-year transfers who are accomplished defensively, but they are not primary scorers and aren’t the dominant forces Culver was on the boards. To be fair, few are, but the rebounding issue has been enough of a concern that another newcomer to the front line may have worked his way into contention for some playing time.
“I’m not sure we redshirt anybody. We really only have one guy that we might, but the way he is playing right now we are probably going to need him,” Huggins said of a Class of 2023 signee who took a fast track to college.
That player, freshman James Okonkwo, graduated from the English equivalent of high school two years ahead of schedule, and it was expected that he would redshirt this year, given his age (17) and the packed Mountaineer roster. However, the need for inside scoring and rebounding, coupled with his play in summer workouts, might cancel those plans.
“James is really playing well, and he is far and away the quickest guy off the floor. He gets to a lot of balls. I was pretty well set that we were going to bring him in and redshirt him, but he’s playing really well,” Huggins summarized.
When practice begins on Tuesday, Huggins will rely on a tried-and-true process to not only teach the details of his systems to his players, but to figure out if what he has in mind best fits the abilities of his players.
“I learned going to school here at West Virginia that the best way to teach was whole-part-whole. That’s stuck with me, and that’s what we do,” said Huggins who is 900-381 in 39 seasons as a head coach. “You teach whole-part-whole. We aren’t going to go in there and throw a lot at them at first. We’re going to dummy through (walk through) a bunch of things, and that won’t be live. Then we break it down into parts, and then you put it back together again.”
That assemblage, it is hoped, results in a rotation that has parts for every occasion, as it has many times in the past. However, with so many potential options, it could be well ito the season before such a definitive rotation exists.
While having so many players competing for time might be viewed as a problem by some, Huggins does not. At this point, no one is out of the running for time, and competition is something that the veteran coach always emphasizes.
“Obviously guys want to play, but I don’t think we will have attitude problems. We’ll have guys sitting there that want to get in the game, but I don’t think our guys, with their personalities and the way they get along with each other we’ll have any issues,” the veteran coach noted. “But our top eight or 10 guys, I couldn’t pick them out right now.”