Thin roster leaves Huggins with little room for error
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If, indeed, there is safety in numbers, well, Bob Huggins probably shouldn't be feeling very safe these days.
His West Virginia basketball team is four days away from its only public exhibition game and just over a week away from the actual start of the season. The NCAA limit for scholarship players is 13. Huggins has 11.
One, Elijah Macon, is ineligible for the season.
Another, Jonathan Holton, is ineligible at least for now.
And yet a third, Remi Dibo, just went under the knife. It was relatively minor knee surgery - relative to what it could have been - but he's still rehabbing and Huggins doesn't seem quite certain when he will play, although the opener is still a possibility.
Keep the calculator turned off. The math is really simple. Come Monday, when West Virginia hosts Fairmont State in that exhibition game, might Huggins have just eight available scholarship players?
"That could happen,'' Huggins said. "It could be less.''
It better not be less because already Huggins' options are severely limited.
Of course, this isn't what Huggins had in mind when he set out to reconstruct perhaps the worst team he's had in three decades of coaching. Three players from that 13-19 disaster of a year ago were already ticketed to leave when their eligibility was up. But he needed more changes than that, so five more left either of their volition or by mutual agreement that they would be better elsewhere.
A funny thing happened on the way to reconstituting the roster, however. Huggins found seven guys he liked to fill most of the eight available roster spots, but one, guard Daxter Miles, didn't qualify. Macon finally managed to get into school at the last minute, but be it because of academics or a bad wrist he won't play. Holton remains the most mysterious question mark because he could eventually become eligible. Or not.
Throw in the injury to Dibo and suddenly West Virginia is looking at guys like Richard Romeo, Chase Connor and Tyrone Hughes for depth. They're walk-ons, by the way. There's another walk-on on the roster, James Long, but he has to sit out the year as a transfer from Wofford.
Huggins, though, isn't complaining, not that he could if he wanted to. After all, he's the one in charge of recruiting these guys, so if he doesn't have a full roster he's the one who shoulders the blame.
And it's not unheard of to have success playing short-handed.
"I think it becomes more of a concern if you get in foul trouble,'' Huggins said. "But we were pretty good in what, 2010-11? We had eight guys and we were pretty good.''
Well, yes, that 2010-11 team was pretty good and not very deep. It finished 21-12 and won an NCAA tournament game over Clemson before losing to a Kentucky team that would reach the Final Four.
But it wasn't very deep because Huggins chose not to make it deep. Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant, Casey Mitchell, John Flowers, Joe Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman, Deniz Kilicli and Dalton Pepper played in just about every game. That was the core of eight. But Jonnie West, Kevin Noreen and Dan Jennings were also available in a pinch, as were three walk-ons.
There's not much in case of a pinch right now.
Also consider the make-up of that team. The 2010-11 group was fairly experienced, with Noreen the only freshman. Everyone else on scholarship had been around for at least the previous season and most for two, three or even four (Mazzulla was a fifth-year senior).
This year Gary Browne and Noreen are playing their third seasons, Juwan Staten, Terry Henderson and Eron Harris their second. The other three eligible and healthy scholarship players are all freshmen - Brandon Watkins, Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian. Even when Dibo returns and if Holton somehow becomes eligible, they're juniors in their first year in the program.
It's just a very tenuous situation, and Huggins knows it. He knows pretty much what his five returnees can do, but there's not much opportunity for experimenting with the freshmen and then sitting them down if they can't handle it right away.
Fortunately, Huggins said, "I think they've all gotten significantly better.''
He meant the three freshmen. That's good, because with this roster there's not much room for error.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.