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WVU basketball: Mountaineers have points of emphasis with extra practice time

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It's hard to say West Virginia's basketball team looks forward to what awaits it.

They're off until Sunday, when they play host to Purdue in front of what figures to be another flimsy crowd. The Boilermakers are from the Big Ten, but they're No. 129 in the RPI and are 8-3 despite playing the nation's 187th most difficult schedule.

Then there's another week without games before the Mountaineers (7-4) play host to William & Mary at the Civic Center, where WVU defeated Marshall by 10 points on Saturday despite trailing most of the game. The Tribe is No. 200 in the RPI and have played the 277th hardest schedule in the country. They'd be WVU's ninth opponent in the first 13 games to be No. 129 or worse in the RPI.

Yet this might be what the Mountaineers need. Big 12 play begins Jan. 4 and despite the dearth of quality opponents thus far, WVU will likely end up playing top-10 schedule because of the strength of the conference. The Big 12 is No. 1 in the conference RPI and gives WVU 10 games in the final 18 against top-100 teams.

Two games in 15 days might not be a bad thing.

"Our problem, because we're so young, is that we can't emphasize everything in practice when we have a few days to prepare for every game," Huggins said. "I think the things we really emphasize we've done a better job at. The things I think we're maybe getting away with we're not emphasizing and they come back and bite us. But we're getting better."

WVU was off Sunday and Tuesday and spent all of Monday's practice on its own strengths and weaknesses. The Mountaineers will begin Purdue preparations today and follow a similar plan next week. Huggins will be careful to make sure practices are geared toward winning the game, but also toward improving the team during an unusual amount of free time.

"I said this in the beginning of the year," Huggins said. "We can be good, but our margin for error is not real big."

Whatever fixes Huggins seeks this week won't be devoted to offense - apart from free-throw shooting, which has been erratic, but is something the team works on daily. The Mountaineers shoot, pass and score better this season. Juwan Staten is an able facilitator and inside scorer and Eron Harris and Terry Henderson are accurate shooters. Freshman Nathan Adrian and junior college transfer Remi Dibo could use practices to get more familiar with what the Mountaineers like to do and Adrian can heal a sprained right ankle.

Those are WVU's perimeter players, though, and the weakness on offense can be found inside, where WVU doesn't have much of a presence in 6-foot-9 freshmen Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins. The Mountaineers have been outscored in the paint in six games and by a total of 22 points. In their losses, the scoring margin in the paint is minus-35. They average 26.5 points per game in the paint, which is less than a third of their scoring.

Staten does his part with drives and layups or, in the case of the Capital Classic, sneaky passes to open teammates at the rim. Huggins has tried to get Williams going in different games while Watkins had played 2 minutes in the two games before his unexpected double-double in 27 minutes against Marshall.

"I think Devin will eventually get there," Huggins said. "He's not there yet, but I think eventually he'll get there."

There's far more work to be done on defense, where the Mountaineers have untimely lapses and sometimes struggle to stop opponents from driving.

They're better now at making rotations and helping teammates, but it letdowns still happen and it still cost the team on possessions.

They can be an effective zone team that causes trouble with a halfcourt trap, but they have to find the right time to use those defenses. Zones are dependent on personnel and matchups while the pressure defenses, whether a press or a trap, depend on depth.

WVU trailed Marshall for the first 36:19 Saturday, but went to a trap and outscored the Thundering Herd 18-4 the rest of the way.

"We attacked more defensively," Huggins said. "We were so passive defensively before that. I didn't want to go to the halfcourt trap until the under-four timeout because our guys play heavy minutes. I wanted to make sure they had enough juice to finish the game and didn't run out of gas on me.

"They wanted to use it. They said, 'Why not do it? It'll get us going?' I was afraid it'd wear us out."

Given the success and the available time to work on it, it could become something WVU goes to more in the future.

"We're not very good at it yet, but it does change the tempo of the game," Huggins said of his team's pressure defense. "It does one of two things: It makes them play a little faster or it gets them very conservative. But it does take them out of their flow."

That helps because Huggins has been critical of how his players transition from offense to defense and how they defend in transition. He's seen players miss shots or not get the ball and then fail to get back on defense. He's seen players dunk or score and then exult to the crowd while the opponent hurries to the other end. He's seen players take plays off or pick a bad time to loaf.

Those quirks combined to let Gonzaga get going as the Bulldogs made their critical run in the Coliseum last week. Huggins wants to make sure his players know effort and consistency are things the Mountaineers can and must control.

"They're not selfish kids, but it's just a selfish thing when you stand there and you're not running back and all of a sudden it's 5-on-4," Huggins said. "It's a learning experience. It's happened to a whole bunch of guys who've come in here and it takes a while to sink in."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. 


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