Purdue matchups call for Mountaineers to go small
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bob Huggins said Friday that who his team is playing against will largely dictate if he keeps his vow to downsize his West Virginia lineup.
"Obviously it's going to depend on matchups,'' Huggins said. "But as we continue to play people that play one big, we're certainly going to have to do that.''
Figure on today being one of those days.
West Virginia (8-8) faces Purdue (9-8) this afternoon in the Mountaineers' final non-conference game of the season. The 2 p.m. game at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., tips just after 2 p.m. and will be televised nationally by CBS.
Purdue is one of those teams that will play one big, at least in the starting lineup. A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot, 280-pound freshman who leads the Big Ten in blocked shots, is joined in the Boilermakers' starting lineup by three guards and a wing player, none of whom are taller than 6-5.
So count on Huggins to go away from playing two big men and settle into a rotation that more often than not includes just one. That's what he promised he would do after watching his big men struggle once again during a 69-67 loss Wednesday night at Iowa State.
"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.''
In the final minutes of that Wednesday night loss in Ames, Iowa, Huggins primarily used a lineup that surrounded 6-foot-10 sophomore Kevin Noreen with guards Juwan Staten, Jabarie Hinds and Eron Harris, along with wing player Matt Humphrey. Gary Browne might have been in that rotation, too, but for a sprained ankle he suffered earlier in the game.
The lack of more than one big man certainly did not hinder West Virginia's play. During those last eight minutes the Mountaineers erased an 18-point deficit behind the shooting of Humphrey, Harris and Hinds.
Noreen finished with 10 rebounds and the Mountaineers actually outrebounded the Cyclones 41-35. Staten, Hinds, Harris and Browne - the four smallest players in the rotation - combined for 19 rebounds, or 10 more than Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray and Dominique Rutledge.
"I don't know that it's going to be the norm, but I thought Kevin Noreen did a great job rebounding the ball,'' Huggins said. "He lost a couple of them that he rebounded, but he did a really good job.
"And there's absolutely no reason that Deniz or Aaric Murray or whatever couldn't do the same thing [if they were playing as the lone big man]. We've got to do a better job after we get the ball, but I think we can rebound it and get second shots with that lineup.''
Of course, the other thing that would help the Mountaineers even more would be if they could shoot like they did in those final eight minutes. Outside shooting - and even inside shooting, for that matter - has been an issue all season for WVU. In road games at Texas and Iowa State in the past 10 days, WVU started 0 for 13 from 3-point range each time.
But against the Longhorns West Virginia made shots when it mattered and rallied to win in overtime. After that 0-for-13 start at Iowa State, the Mountaineers made nine of their last 11 3-point attempts.
A few things might contribute to better shooting today against Purdue. For one, freshman Terry Henderson will likely return after missing the Iowa State trip because of back pains. Huggins said Henderson is practicing again.
Another would be Humphrey, the senior transfer from Boston College who was supposed to have given the team a shooting spark this season. It hasn't happened. Going into the Iowa State game, Humphrey hadn't even played since Dec. 22 and was shooting 30.7 percent from 3-point range when he did play.
But then with Henderson out and outside shooting needed, Huggins first tried Aaron Brown and then Humphrey. Humphrey caught fire, making three 3s in four attempts.
"Let's be honest, he didn't make shots early in the year,'' Huggins said. "He's put a lot of time in and kind of fixed a couple of things that were giving him problems.''
If Humphrey continues to shoot the ball well, he could be a huge asset for a team that ranks among the worst in the country in both 3-point and overall shooting.
"He's got to play,'' Huggins said. "We've got to be able to score the ball.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.