Mountaineers have Big East title hopes
Bob Huggins has added some wide bodies to his rugged brand of basketball. Huggins says West Virginia has been outmatched physically the past couple of years, but that's getting ready to change. West Virginia's beefed-up roster includes five players at 240 pounds or more. When he arrived in 2007, Huggins did away with the back-door cuts and 3-point barrages made popular by former coach John Beilein. The players recruited to fit that style of play are now gone, too, replaced by stockier athletes who can give the Mountaineers some needed inside presence. "We have been kind of outmatched physically the past couple of years and that's getting ready to change," Huggins said. Two years ago, West Virginia won 26 games and advanced to the West Region semifinals on Joe Alexander's scoring, but Huggins felt his team wasn't good enough defensively. Last year, the defense stacked up nicely. But with Alexander gone and the lineup thin, WVU struggled to score, went 23-12 and lost an NCAA first-round game to Dayton. Huggins believes he now has the right fit at both ends of the floor. There are no potential all-Americans like Danny Fortson or Kenyon Martin that made Huggins' Cincinnati teams a staple in the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers will count on forwards Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks. Butler led the Mountaineers with 17 points per game and was a second-team all-Big East selection a year ago. Ebanks was picked for the all-conference rookie team and averaged 10.5 points and nearly eight rebounds. "We have a lot of weapons this year, a lot more weapons on the offensive end," Ebanks said. "We have a lot of shooters. We've got power down low." At 6-foot-9, Ebanks is the team's tallest player, but the Mountaineers made up for the lack of height with newcomers like 260-pound freshman Danny Jennings and doing some serious work on the weights. Backup forward Kevin Jones gained 35 pounds and is now 260. Center Wellington Smith went from 225 to 245. "You look at, for instance, Pitt a year ago with their front line," Huggins said. "We're going to be like that now." Smith set a school record for blocked shots by a sophomore with 90 last year and Huggins said he has a chance to break the career record of 190 set by D'or Fischer over two seasons. "I've kind of challenged Wells a little bit," Huggins said. "We've got to get him to get to the ball a little bit better and make plays." Depth might be the greatest improvement, with Joe Mazzulla - who was injured last year - and fellow point guard Truck Bryant reinstated from suspensions. The only significant roster loss from last year was second-leading scorer Alex Ruoff. There was no solid backup for Ruoff a year ago but Huggins should get significant minutes from two shooting guards. Casey Mitchell was the 2009 national junior college player of the year, though he's still mending from surgery to repair a torn cartilage in his right knee. Freshman Dalton Pepper was the Pennsylvania player of the year in his school's class. The Mountaineers will play four games in a six-day stretch in late November, including three games at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. There's also games with Purdue and Ohio State inserted into the mix of the brutal Big East schedule. "It's great preparation for March," Huggins said. "Hopefully the more you experience things, the better you'll be able to adapt to them." While Villanova, which returns three top guards from last year's Final Four team, is expected to be the league's frontrunner, Huggins expects West Virginia to be up there as well. "That's where we've got to get to, where we're one of the two, three teams mentioned every year that's going to win the league," Huggins said. "Because if you win our league, you can win a national championship."