Huggins preaches ball security for No. 20 WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As much as coach Bob Huggins liked watching his West Virginia team's full-court press force turnovers last season, he cringed at how frequently his own ballhandlers threw away possessions.

With three veteran guards returning, better ballhandling could make this a special season for the 20th-ranked Mountaineers, who open play by hosting Mount St. Mary's on Friday (7 p.m. ET).

West Virginia was picked to finish second to Kansas in the Big 12 — the Mountaineers' highest projection in five years since switching conferences.

“That doesn't mean anything unless you back it up. And now we've got to go back it up,” Huggins said.

Last season's 26-9 record, which included a runner-up finish to the Jayhawks during the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament, brought more frenetic defense tempered by frantic offense. While forcing the second-most turnovers per game (17.8) in the nation, the West Virginia ranked 303rd out of 346 Division I teams in turnovers committed (14.2).

“We need to not throw it out of bounds so much,” Huggins said. “Our ball security was as bad as it's been probably in my nine years here.”

That sloppiness surfaced during a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. A 70-56 upset loss to 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin saw West Virginia produce 22 turnovers and only 16 field goals.

Such upside-down ratios may be a thing of the past now that dual point guards Tarik Philip (9.3 points, 2.5 rebounds) and Jevon Carter (9.5 points, 1.6 steals) return, along with shooting guard Daxter Miles (9.4 points, 1.4 steals). After playing together for two years, the trio set an offseason pace in hopes their shooting catches up with their gritty defense.

Huggins will need offensive help after losing top scorers Jaysean Paige (13.7 points), the Big 12's sixth man of the year, and Devin Williams (13.3 points, 9.5 rebounds), the league's leading rebounder.

“This league has come down to last possessions a lot, and you've got to get hard rebounds,” Huggins said. “Dev could do that for us, so we're going to have to have other guys step up.”

Much is expected of late-developing forward Elijah Macon, who arrived at West Virginia as a top-100 recruit three years ago but has yet to come close to that potential.

Sophomore small forward Esa Ahmad (4.9 points, 2.7 rebounds) also anticipates bigger contributions after making 34 starts last season.

The sleeper standout could be senior Nathan Adrian, a 6-foot-9 forward who shot nearly 50 percent from 3-point range while averaging 4.5 points and 3.1 rebounds. He has been a breakout scorer in scrimmages and exhibitions.

Mount St. Mary's, 1-25 all-time against ranked teams and 14-19 last season, returns three starters and was picked fourth in the Northeast Conference.

The Mount has dropped seven consecutive season openers to a string of power programs that includes Maryland, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Marquette, Dayton, Oklahoma and West Virginia in 2013.

Jamion Christian enters his fifth season as coach with a 63-65 record, though his exciting teams have blended pressure defense and a 3-point attack.

“This is a mentally tough group,” Christian told the Frederick (Md.) News-Post about the team's schedule, which also features Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas. “I feel it wants a challenge like this and can handle it.”

Mount St. Mary's features dynamic 5-foot-5 guard Junior Robinson, a second-team all-conference performer last season, when he averaged 12.2 points and 3.1 assists.