Big 12 Team Preview #5: West Virginia Mountaineers

Posted by KoryCarpenter on November 8th, 2012

Over the next two weeks, we’ll bring you the obligatory team previews here at the Big 12 microsite. West Virginia at the #5 position is next on our list. 

The Skinny

2011-12 record: 19-14, 9-9 Big East

Key Contributors Gone: F Kevin Jones, G Darryl “Truck” Bryant

Head Coach: Bob Huggins, 6th season

Projected Finish: 5th

Huggy Bear is Back (AP)

Bob Huggins is back in the Big 12, and that’s nothing but good news for the conference. The former Kansas State head coach bolted for West Virginia in 2007 and is back after the Mountaineers joined the conference along with TCU this summer. His one year stint in the Big 12 in 2006-07 could help his team’s transition. Or not. “I don’t know,” Huggins said when asked about his familiarity in the league. “I know where to eat.” Huggins is just funny enough and just somber enough that you never quite know if he’s being serious or cracking a joke, like when he talked about the new round-robin schedule that will take him to every Big 12 campus this season. “I didn’t get to go to Lubbock,” he said of his 2006-07 season at Kansas State. “I almost wanted to stay so I cold get to go to Lubbock the next year.”

Huggins’ acrimonious remark towards the West Texas town was dead on to anyone who has been there, and it’s a reminder to Big 12 fans that the conference has personality again, like the days when Norm Stewart and Johnny Orr and Billy Tubbs roamed the sidelines and wrote writer’s stories with their quotes. Huggins might not be so familiar with Big 12 locales, but he is familiar with a tough basketball league. He battled Louisville, UConn, and Syracuse for conference titles in the Big East. Now he’s faced with Kansas, Baylor, and Texas. Getting to those schools won’t be easy, either. “They asked me who our rivalry in the conference was going to be,” Huggins said. “I said it’s probably Iowa State, they’re only 853 air miles away.” Travel nightmares notwithstanding, the Mountaineers seem equipped to battle the Big 12’s top teams on a yearly basis. They’ve won 24 games a season every year Huggins as been in Morgantown. But like a lot of programs in the conference, they face a fair amount of roster turnover in their opening season, losing the top two scorers off last year’s team.

The Personnel

Unlike TCU, West Virginia players will have no problems adjusting to life in the Big 12. Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant are gone, two players who contributed nearly 37 PPG last season for the Mountaineers. The rest of last year’s rotation is back, though, led by senior forward Deniz Kilicli, who started all but one game while averaging 10.7 PPG and 5.3 RPG. The Turkish product leads all returning players in both categories. Of course, the biggest story heading into the season – besides the conference shift – is the availability of junior center Aaric Murray, who transferred from La Salle following the 2010-11 season. Murray started all but four games as a freshman and sophomore at La Salle, leading the team in scoring (15.2 PPG) rebounding (7.7 RPG) and blocks (2.3 BPG). His 143 career blocks were second on the all-time school list after just two seasons and should start immediately alongside Kilicli this season.

Sophomore forward Keaton Miles started 30 games last year, but it’s hard to gauge his role as a sophomore with the arrival of Murray. While he started 30 games, he was seventh on the team with 13.1 MPG and only 1.4 PPG. Barring an impressive offseason, it’s hard to envision him having a large role behind the two proven big men. Luckily for Huggins and his team, there are plenty of guards to help Kilicli and Murray this season. “We were the only team in America that couldn’t recruit guards,” Huggins joked at Big 12 Media Day. “I think we’re fortunate now with Gary (Browne) and Juwan Staten and with Jabarie (Hinds) that we have three guys that can actually play the point.” Guard play is necessary in a conference full of talented guards, from Pierre Jackson and Le’Bryan Nash to Elijah Johnson and Myck Kabongo.

Look for sophomore guard Gary Browne to have an even bigger role this season for the Mountaineers

Huggins had more praise for Browne, the sophomore guard who played 25.6 MPG last season as a true freshman. “Gary brings a tremendous amount of intensity and enthusiasm and he plays so hard,” Huggins said. ” I think he forces everybody to play harder because he plays so hard.” He went on to call Browne his team’s best on-ball defender as well. Browne averaged 6.5 PPG and 3.0 APG in 2011-12 as the team’s sixth man. The former Puerto Rican national team member was second on the team in assists with 98 and led the squad with 15 points in its 77-54 loss to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He’ll be joined in the backcourt with fellow sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds, who started all 33 games last season, averaging 7.4 PPG and a team-high 3.3 APG. Hinds also led the team with 46 steals, and he should make a competent guard duo with Hinds this season. But as Huggins noted, he’s also high on transfer guard Juwan Staten, who played at Dayton in 2010-11 as a freshman. He started 34 games that year for the Flyers, leading the Atlantic 10 in assists (190) and was second in the country among freshmen with 5.4 APG.

Why They Might Be Better Than You Think

Former Marquette head coach Al McGuire once said, “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” If that is the case, West Virginia could be in store for a good season in the Big 12. Of the six returning players who averaged at least 2.0 MPG, five of those are sophomores. It highlights just how young last year’s team was, and how much they depended on Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant. With opportunities to impress and the experience gained last season, any of the sophomores could see big improvements in 2011-12. Also, having Bob Huggins on the sidelines doesn’t hurt, either. Huggins is the second best coach in the league behind Kansas’ Bill Self, with over 700 career wins and two Final Four appearances.

Potential Roadblocks

There aren’t many outside shooting threats on this roster. Aaron Browne and Hinds each made 25 three-pointers last season on a combined 142 attempts, but that’s about it. Gary Browne is the only other returning player to make a three-pointer last season, and he only made 11 all year. Kilicli and Murray’s experience and talent in the paint will help, but the lack of a dependable deep threat will have teams sagging down low with no fear of repercussion. The lack of attempts could be attributed to Jones and Bryant, who attempted 358 three’s between the two of them. That’s a lot of shots to spread around, and it will interesting to see if Browne and Hinds fill in those roles or Huggins gears his offense more towards his big men.

The Sleeper Candidate

Keaton Miles started 30 of a possible 32 games as a true freshman, so there’s obviously something that Huggins likes about his game. Maybe it’s his floor presence. Maybe it’s just a case of not fixing something that isn’t broken. Whatever it is, all that experience has to help him this year as a sophomore. He should continue to start next to Kilicli and Murray, and should be able to provide a bigger scoring and rebounding boost with a year behind him.

Final Projection

West Virginia is still a young team missing last year’s two leading scorers. The freshmen have promise and the transfers should help immediately. Bob Huggins is one of the better coaches in the country and he has some familiarity in the Big 12, but there’s not enough talent on this roster to challenge for a Big 12 championship. I also don’t think the long distances will be kind to the Mountaineers as the conference schedule kicks in, potentially wearing them down by late February.

KoryCarpenter (150 Posts)

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