By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When you have reached the depths that West Virginia University had reached through its first four games of the 2012-13 basketball season, losing three of those games and looking in them as though you might never win another, the next time on the floor you would settle for even just a little bit of improvement.
The Mountaineers did not stop there as they played their home opener on Tuesday night, taking some giant steps in pounding an overmatched and undermanned VMI team, 94-69, before 7,531 at the Coliseum.
Everything seemingly improved, except for the Mountaineers’ health, for during the game both Dominique Rutledge and Kevin Noreen, a pair of big inside players coach Bob Huggins is counting on, suffered what seemed to be ankle sprains, Rutledge’s looking to be the more serious of the two, and senior transfer Matt Humphrey didn’t play at all because he tweaked his surgically-mended shoulder during practice.
The shooting improved from a team that was hitting only 39.8 percent of its shots at game time into a team that would shoot 45.1 percent, many of them layups and dunks as they dominated for 60 points in the paint.
The ball handling went from a team that had accounted for 44 assists to 51 turnovers into a team that recorded 20 assists to just eight turnovers, Gary Browne running the show with seven assists and nary a misplay.
More important, Juwan Staten seemed far more comfortable as a point or wing guard than in the earlier games, scoring 18 points to lead seven players into double figures on 7-of-10 shooting, with seven rebounds and three assists.
“He makes us look good,” said Browne, when asked to compare the point play with last year’s. “We’ve got more leadership on the team now. We are making plays and making them put pressure on the guards.”
And when the opponents try to pressure the guards, that makes things open up inside for Deniz Kilicli, who played only two first-half minutes when he got into instantaneous foul trouble. He came back in the second half to score 13 points, while Aaric Murray, continuing to try and figure out how Huggins wants the game played, scored 13 points and had nine rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.
While Huggins saw improvement in Murray, he still emphasizes one point.
“I need Murray to play hard all the time,” the coach said between coughs from what sounded like an awful chest cold. “I don’t need him to play hard after I call a timeout and rip him. He’s making progress, but he’s not close yet.”
Murray, however, saw progress in the way the team was playing, and he wasn’t talking about the shooting, running, defending or rebounding. He was talking about the chemistry, something that had been badly lacking in those first four games.
“We were cheering for each other,” Murray noted. “When my teammates were coming out of the game, they weren’t pouting; they weren’t staying off to themselves. What was hurting us wasn’t talent; we’ve got that.”
The talent, in the end, is what they have to allow to carry them into the brand of basketball Huggins wants, which is fast, faster and fastest. Pushing the ball up the court, pushing the defense out and letting the big men clean up anyone who gets loose, that is the formula, and it was there against VMI.
“We get points a lot of different ways,” said Staten. “Coach is happy when we get a lot of points off turnovers.”
In this game the Mountaineers had 20 points off turnovers, many of them resulting in fast breaks that Staten either finished or assisted on.
“He played a lot better,” Huggins said. “He pushed the ball, which we need him to do, and got us easy opportunities. I think he did more than push it; I think he looked up the floor better. I think he advanced the ball up the floor better. He was better at the defensive end.
“He made some rotations and got his hands on some balls. He made a couple of shots, but we’re kind of counting on him to get us easy baskets. Today he did.”
The Mountaineers return to action against Marshall at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum next Wednesday.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.