We're entering the top half of the league in the countdown, and the criteria and tone of these next few previews will focus on one, basic question; is this team good enough to win the league? With the obvious inclusion of Kansas, these next five schools have in my opinion, the talent, experience and coaching on hand to be considered a legitimate conference title contender. At #5, Big 12 newcomer, West Virginia.
2011-2012 Record: 19-14, 9-9 (Big East)
Key Losses: F Kevin Jones, G Darryl Bryant
By all accounts, Bob Huggins is one of the most well-respected coaches in the business. He's won at every school he's coached at and on occasion, has fielded some outstanding teams. He's one of five coaches in the Big 12 to lead a team to the Final Four (Bill Self, Bruce Weber, Rick Barnes and Lon Kruger being the others), and he's also taken a spin around this league before during his brief tenure at Kansas State. Huggins is also confident in his Mountaineer squad. When made aware that his team had been picked to finish 6th in the Big 12, Huggins told WVUSports.com, "Honestly, if we're the sixth-best team in the league then it's a hell of a league."
Huggins brings a young, but talented team, battle-hardened by Big East play to the Big 12 and the Mountaineers will waste little time when it comes to shaking things up. West Virginia University Coliseum will be one of the tougher venues in the league to play at, which should come as no surprise to the rest of Big 12, where winning on the road is never an easy task.
Size and bulk, the Mountaineers have them. Just look at this front line:
Deniz Kilicli - SR - 6'9" 260 lbs.
Aaric Murray - JR - 6'10" 250 lbs.
Kevin Noreen - SO - 6'10" 250 lbs
Dominique Rutledge - SR - 6'8" 245 lbs.
As you can see, this frontcourt should have no trouble throwing their size around and banging inside. They'll be joined by sophomore forwards Keaton Miles and Aaron Brown, who saw big minutes as freshmen. The star of this unit should be Murray, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 7.7 REB as a sophomore at La Salle. The Big 12 is a significant step up from the Atlantic 10, but Murray has already earned the praise of Huggins, who's compared him to former Mountaineer, Kevin Jones. Jones led the Big East in scoring (19.9) and rebounding (10.9) last year, so that's quite the compliment. Murray has the ability to step outside as he made 35.6% of his 3PT (51-143) in his two years at La Salle. While Murray brings that versatility, Kilicli is an old school enforcer inside and will surely draw the ire of opposing fans on the road. He can get a little foul happy, but when on the floor, he's a productive player at both ends. Rutledge and Noreen figure to factor in as rotational back ups in the post while Brown and Miles will spell each other on the wing. Matt Humphrey could steal some minutes though if he proves to be a reliable shooter from outside.
A trio of sophomores will lead the way in the backcourt. Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds went through the standard ups and downs as freshmen, but they'll be joined by Juwan Staten, a transfer from Dayton who led the A-10 in assists two seasons ago. Staten figures to be the floor leader this year while Browne and Hinds will compliment as off guards. WVU can go big and play Humphrey at shooting guard, but lose speed and ball handling in doing so. Freshmen Aric Dickerson, Eron Harris and Terry Henderson may contribute in some fashion, but for all of the depth in the post, just how deep Huggins can go with the guards is a major question.
Why They'll Finish 5th
It's going to be tough for West Virginia to come in and contend in a new league. There's enough talent to make a serious push, but I think the travel will catch up with the Mountaineers and they'll drop a few games on the road. This is a team that should have an NCAA tournament berth locked up as the season wears on though and will be a threat in the conference tournament.
Why I Don't Know Shit
Despite the talent on this roster, I think WVU is a perimeter scorer away from being special. Hinds showed flashes last year of being that guy, but wasn't particularly efficient, shooting 41.9% from the field. Staten is more of a true distributor and could shoulder that scoring load, but he's not a scoring point guard like say, Pierre Jackson. Outside shooting has to be a concern for Huggins. Humphrey and Aaron Brown can knock it down, but both are more role players. Murray and Staten will also face a huge step up in competition, going from the A-10 to the Big 12. We'll see if they're ready to make that leap. If they're not, West Virginia may be playing on the bubble as the season drags on.
West Virginia has qualified for seven of the last eight NCAA tournaments, with 2007 being the lone year they didn't make the field (West Virginia won the NIT that year). During that stretch, the Mountaineers have made it to the Sweet 16 four times, advancing to the Elite 8 in two of those seasons and getting to the Final Four in 2010. Also, Bob Huggins and Fred Hoiberg are the only two coaches in the conference that are coaching at their alma maters.