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WVU, Huggins need to strike

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You probably know West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins and his staff are recruiting players from Huntington St. Joseph Prep, one of the nation's top basketball programs.

WVU has been on Montaque "Tekki" Gill-Caesar, a 6-foot-6 top-25 small forward, for quite a while. Back in September, Irish coach Rob Fulford hinted Huggins had a very good shot at the player. Gill-Caesar visited Morgantown for its midnight madness deal.

Likewise, the Mountaineers have been in on JaQuan Lyle, a 6-5 guard, who is available after dropping his commitment to Louisville. As you might remember, Lyle dropped the U of L after the Cards picked up junior college star Chris Jones.

This past week, I spoke to Lyle after school.

"I went to Morgantown two weekends ago," he said. "It went real well. I went to the football game and a basketball game. It was a great visit. The fans were very supportive."

Remember, WVU has a commitment from another Huntington Prep player in 6-10 Levi Cook, who transferred there from Liberty Raleigh. The hope in Mountaineer camp is Cook, a 2015 recruit, will flourish against Prep's top competition - and maybe sway some of his current teammates.

Huggins and staff, however, are struggling with landing that program's upper-echelon players. Gorgui Dieng went to Louisville and is now with the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins, the nation's No. 1 2013 recruit, is with Kansas.

And now there are more clouds for the Mountaineers. Kentucky and Michigan State have suddenly entered the Gill-Caesar race. WVU went from a good bet there to a long shot. Gill-Caesar, in fact, seems to be John Calipari's No. 1 target for 2014. MSU's Tom Izzo has the Spartans No. 1 in the rankings.

Lyle, meanwhile, received a visit from Kansas on Thursday and says he has an offer from the Jayhawks.

"I have eight schools I'm considering," Lyle said. "Kansas, Providence, Oregon, West Virginia, Indiana, Connecticut, Memphis and Florida State.

"There's really no leader. I'm just enjoying the process and season."

Yet the hill seems rugged for the Mountaineers in regard to either player - let alone young Miles Bridges, whom Fulford considers the second-best player he's coached behind Wiggins.

The thought from here, though, is simple. WVU's coaches need to step up their recruiting games. In regard to Gill-Caesar, Huggins should do what he's always done to Calipari, at least on the court: beat him.

Do you know Huggins' teams have defeated those of Calipari eight of 10 times, including that 2010 WVU stunner in the NCAA East Region final?

True, it's tough to compete against the recruiting steamroller that's Calipari and Kentucky. It's sort of like trying to beat Nick Saban and Alabama in football.

Also, UK has more hoops tradition than any school. That's a fact. In contrast, WVU drew but 4,814 this past Thursday for its Georgia Southern game.

But West Virginia is a top-25 hoops program in regard to wins. It began the season No. 24 all-time.

Huggins is the winningest coach in a talent-laden Big 12. He's No. 3 among all active coaches.

Now he can kick-start his program by knocking off his buddy Calipari, at least in a couple recruiting wars.

The coach can do it. We've seen it in the past.

Here's the deal, though. He could use help.

No, Huggins doesn't have a downtown Cincinnati to show recruits. Yes, West Virginia has stereotypes with which to deal.

But, um, doesn't Kentucky have stereotypes as well? Doesn't Alabama?

My contention is WVU needs to be creative. It needs to market itself better. Those at the school should stop whining, showcase what they do have and knock the stereotypes and barriers down.

The school, for instance, built a $24 million, 64,000-square foot practice facility. In a word, it's breathtaking. If you haven't seen it, find a way to take a tour. You'll see what I mean.

Nationally, though, it's like that tree that fell in a forest. Anyone hear it?

Yes, you can go on YouTube and take a tour. But compare the publicity noise of the facility to that of Oregon's $68 million football facility.

There is no comparison. Word of the Ducks' facility was splashed nationwide. Word of WVU's facility was whispered - if that.

Create a marketing package. Bundle Morgantown (which was named the nation's No. 1 micro-city, whatever the heck that is) with Huggins (a future Hall-of-Fame coach) with the Coliseum (which remains, men's stalls aside, one of the neatest arenas around) and practice facility with the school's Big 12 membership.

I'm not a marketing expert, but surely something can be done with that on a national, rather than local, level. Peddle it. Now.

Understand that next year, WVU should have a fine team. Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon should join forces with Juwan Staten, Devin Williams, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson to make for a contender.

The current team looked great this past Thursday against a team that pushed Miami to overtime, and again Saturday in a 33-point win over Presbyterian.

The pieces are in place now, though, to kick it up a notch. A coach like Huggins doesn't come along often. A practice facility like that in Morgantown isn't new for long.

WVU needs to take advantage - before it's too late to do so.

Huggins needs to whip Calipari again, this time in recruiting. And his school should give him a boost.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.

 


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