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'Eers starting to look like Huggins' kind of team

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - To suggest that West Virginia has instantly and somehow magically cured all the ills that characterized last year's 13-19 team would be to stretch the truth.

Yes, through the first eight games of the season the Mountaineers have won six times and by a whopping average of nearly 27 points. While a great deal of that can be attributed to unquestionably improved play - primarily in the area of shooting - the schedule, in part by design, has also been less than taxing.

Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins will readily admit that in a couple of the primary areas where his best teams have always excelled - namely rebounding and defense - this group still has a long way to go.

But just as the schedule is about to become more challenging - a road game Thursday at 7-0 Missouri, then a Tuesday home game against No. 19 Gonzaga - the Mountaineers are also showing improvement. West Virginia could not possibly have rebounded the ball any better than it did in walloping Loyola of Maryland 96-47 Monday night at the Coliseum. Defensively, WVU held the nation's second-leading scorer, Dylon Cormier, 17 points below his 28-point average and limited the Greyhounds to 34-percent shooting and just seven second-shot opportunities.

Again, the competition might have been less than top-shelf - although Loyola's only loss before Monday was by 10 points at No. 12 Connecticut - but prior to that West Virginia had outrebounded only two teams (Georgia Southern and Presbyterian) and ranked No. 222 in the country in rebounding margin.

Although no new NCAA statistics are out, Monday's 62-22 rebounding margin would have moved the Mountaineers from No. 222 to No. 103 (top one-third) in just one game.

And while no one expects a rash of 40-rebound margins from WVU, the Mountaineers do seem to have the potential to be competitive in that area.

"We have potential,'' said junior Kevin Noreen, who with eight rebounds was one of a group of all five starters who had at least seven. "If we play big, we're going to have a 6-9 guy at the 3 [small forward] spot. So we should be able to rebound.

"But other than that, Coach Huggins just stresses it. A lot.''

Indeed, West Virginia's starting lineup, which has remained constant through the first eight games, is the big lineup. It includes guards Juwan Staten and Eron Harris and a front line of the 6-foot-10 Noreen at center and 6-9 freshmen Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian.

That's not necessarily the lineup that is on the floor the most, of course, so when Terry Henderson and/or Gary Browne enter the game - usually replacing one of the bigs and making it a three-guard lineup - the size is diminished. The only size on the bench comes from 6-7 Remi Dibo, who is primarily a perimeter player, and 6-9 freshman Brandon Watkins, who is still raw.

But whether it's the frontcourt players or the guards, Huggins will continue to stress the importance of rebounding. Both Staten (10) and Harris (7) set career highs in rebounds against Loyola, as did Adrian (nine) and Watkins (six), the latter in just 11 minutes.

As for playing defense, that will also continue to be a work in progress. Through eight games WVU is holding opponents to 40.5-percent shooting overall and 31.6 percent on 3-pointers. Both figures are fairly pedestrian, but they are considerably better than last year's percentages of 44.8 and 38.1, respectively.

Much of any defensive improvement will simply come from experience.

"We still run at guys that can't shoot and sometimes we don't run at guys that can shoot,'' Huggins said. "That has to get better.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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