With only three players back from last season and seven newcomers joining the fray, Bob Huggins and the West Virginia Mountaineers will experience their share of growing pains this season. As is the case with any Huggins' coached team, West Virginia will be competitive due to its hard-nosed style of play. However, I am not sure it will be enough to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountaineers avoided taking an even bigger hit this offseason when Kevin Jones decided to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return for his senior season. Jones was expected to take a big leap last season but failed to do so as he really struggled with his outside shot. He will have to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing junior year and play a major role for West Virginia this season.
Big man Deniz Kilicli is also back to provide some size in the middle. He showed improvement as a sophomore but must take on an even bigger role this season so expect to see more of his patented, old-school hook shot that might be one of the ugliest things in college basketball.
Inexperience kicks in behind Jones and Kilcli in the frontcourt. Redshirt freshman Kevin Noreen, junior college transfer Dominic Rutledge, and freshmen Aaron Brown, Tommy McCune, and Keaton Miles will all compete for the other starting frontcourt spot. Noreen and Rutledge offer more size and would give Huggins a bigger, more physical look with Jones sliding to the small forward spot. Brown, McCune, and Miles are all combo forwards who bring a little more athleticism and versatility to the table; and usually a favorite of Huggins.
Backcourt depth will be a concern for West Virginia as Truck Bryant is the only experienced player returning. He can fill it up when he gets the hot hand but is also a very streaky shooter who too often becomes a non-factor when he has an off night. Bryant will likely play off the ball a lot this season and be joined in the starting backcourt by point guard Jabarie Hinds. He is considered the best of the Mountaineers' incoming class and relies on his quickness and ability to get to the basket which could present issues having to drive the lane against taller defenders. Combo guard Gary Browne is the only backcourt reserve and will give West Virginia a shooter off the bench.
The Mountaineers picked up a pair of key transfers this offseason in LaSalle big man Aaric Murray and Dayton point guard Juwan Staten. Both players must sit out this season, per NCAA transfer rules, but will make major impacts in 2012-2013.
This is the most inexperienced group Huggins has coached since arriving in Morgantown in 2007. Expect there to be plenty of bumps along the way, but a .500 mark in the Big East is not out of the question and usually enough to get a team into the NCAA Tournament; a feat Huggins has accomplished all four years at West Virginia.
Player to Watch: Kevin Jones, F
Which Kevin Jones will show up this year? The one who shot better than 40% from three as a sophomore or the one who barely hit the 30% clip during his junior season? West Virginia needs the former if they want to finish in the upper half of the conference standings especially since their only other experienced outside shooter, Truck Bryant is just as streaky.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/15 vs. Kent State
11/22 vs. Morehead State
12/3 at Mississippi State (Big East/SEC Challenge)