Humphrey's return has Huggins thinking small
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Matt Humphrey finally got back on the floor for West Virginia's basketball team Wednesday. If Bob Huggins does what he promised late that same night, Humphrey might be getting even more chances.
The Mountaineers played their third straight game that came down to the final possession and lost for the second time in that span. Iowa State won 69-67 on a layup by Georges Niang with 2.5 seconds to play at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, and WVU never got off a last shot.
Humphrey was part of a long-range shooting exhibition put on by the Mountaineers that enabled them to erase all of an 18-point deficit to tie the game with less than 12 seconds to go. Freshman Eron Harris and sophomore Jabarie Hinds also contributed as WVU, after missing its first 13 3-pointers, made 9 of 11 at the end of the game to make things interesting.
It was a comeback forged through shooting and aggressive play by a small lineup, something Huggins vowed later to continue to use - not so much because it was briefly successful, but because his preferred bigger lineup isn't getting the job done at all.
"We're going with a smaller lineup. I'm not doing that anymore,'' Huggins said a few moments after his team had lost for the third time in four Big 12 Conference games. "I'm done. They've had ample opportunity. They've had over half the season.
"How could it be worse? We're 1-3. How could it be worse?''
Huggins would prefer to stay with a bigger lineup. It's just his style of play. He likes to throw the ball close to the basket and get easy shots and he likes having big bodies protecting the goal at the other end.
But try as he might this season, he hasn't been able find a big-man combination that works. He has four of them - seniors Deniz Kilicli and Dominique Rutledge, junior Aaric Murray and redshirt sophomore Kevin Noreen - but for the most part they will rise up for a possession or a half or even a game, but then disappear again.
Against Iowa State, Noreen had 10 rebounds. Those other three bigs combined had just nine. The three guards who played most of the game - Hinds, Harris and Juwan Staten - had 15.
So what's the advantage of playing a big lineup if three guards are outrebounding three bigs?
"We changed lineups, tried to spread them and penetrate and get shots and played with one big,'' Huggins said. "We played with the one big that actually tried to get a rebound.''
That would be Noreen, although at game's end it was Murray on the floor. Noreen had just turned the ball over twice to toss away valuable possessions and Murray was needed for his defense. He wound up blocking the shot that gave West Virginia the chance to tie the game with 11.6 seconds to go on a 3-pointer by Hinds.
So now comes Huggins' opportunity to simply scrap the big men and go small. The Mountaineers have the perfect opportunity to test it out, facing Purdue on Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette, Ind., in the team's final non-conference game of the season.
"You get tired of saying the same things to the same people day after day after day,'' Huggins said. "We're not going to do that anymore.''
And so at just past the midpoint of the 31-game regular season, the Mountaineers (8-8, 1-3 Big 12) will essentially start over, at least in terms of emphasis. That means a smaller lineup, probably more shooters on the floor and more chances for a guy like Humphrey.
The senior transfer from Boston College had not played since a Dec. 22 game against Radford. With freshman Terry Henderson out with a back problem and the Mountaineers in that 0-for-13 start from 3-point range, Huggins was desperate.
"I just needed another guy,'' he said.
Humphrey was happy to be that guy.
"I'm a basketball player,'' he said simply after he'd made three of his four 3-point attempts and scored nine points in just 10 minutes. "At the end of the day, I'm always ready to play.''
Humphrey arrived this season with great expectations that have just not come to pass. He was expected to add much-needed shooting to a team that had trouble finding the basket, but for a variety of reasons - be they defense, offensive sets, hustle, whatever - he hasn't even been able to find the floor.
On his third school and in his fifth season, though, Humphrey didn't have much choice but to ride it out, not that he would have considered giving it up anyway.
"Honestly, just because I'm not playing doesn't mean I'm not into the games,'' he said. "I still want to win, whether it's playing or sitting on the bench. But playing's a lot better.''
Huggins has choices, of course. He has essentially four true guards and four wing players to choose from, so it's not as if Humphrey will play by default in a smaller lineup. But he's at least on the radar now.
"I think sitting over there has given Matt a greater appreciation for being on the floor,'' Huggins said. "And I think he's accepted his role a little bit better.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.