|Kevin Jones :: Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI
Just ask coach Bob Huggins if this year's team can extend the program's string of four straight NCAA appearances. "Why can't we?" he asks.
It's hard to argue with a man who's taken WVU to the NCAA tournament every year since his return to Morgantown, including a trip to the Final Four in 2010 and Sweet 16 in 2008. He's 101-42 at West Virginia (21-12 last season) and will reach his 700th career victory with nine wins this season. Huggins, however, will have to rely on returning starters Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant and a very young core of seven newcomers to reach the NCAA tournament again.
WVU's frontcourt starts with Jones, who flirted with the NBA draft before deciding to return. The 6-foot-8 senior had a mostly disappointing season last year but still averaged 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. He came on strong at the end, scoring 25 points with 16 rebounds in the home finale against Louisville and 17 with nine boards in a win over Clemson in the NCAA tournament.
Jones will need to shoot more consistently this season as the team leader. Junior center Deniz Kilicli can shoot but has to get better at rebounding and on the defensive end. The surprise here might be 6-10 Kevin Noreen, who is coming off a medical redshirt (knee). Athletic junior college transfer Dominique Rutledge and freshmen Keaton Miles and Pat Forsythe will also be in the mix.
West Virginia's backcourt will be interesting to watch. Bryant was the team's third-leading scorer last season but continued his penchant for playing out of control. It helped, however, when Bryant was moved from point guard to off-guard and was paired with the departed Joe Mazzulla.
This season, Huggins will try to pair Bryant with a true freshman point guard in Jabarie Hinds. "We'll need Truck to make some perimeter shots," says Huggins. "A lot of times we'll get him off the ball. At the end of last year, he made shots."
It might be a tough task for Hinds to step right into the Big East, but the team will have the benefit of a preseason trip to Italy.
The Mountaineers also have another promising point guard in 6-1 Gary Browne, who played on the Puerto Rican national team. And when Huggins needs a physical presence at guard, he'll look to 6-5 freshman Aaron Brown, who is more suited to cover the Big East's bigger guards.
Huggins will have to conjure some magic this season to extend his NCAA streak at West Virginia. Opponents are likely to focus on Jones, who enters the season with 1,165 career points and should finish among the school's top 10 all-time scorers. Bryant will have to take the heat off Jones, but it's questionable whether he's suited for a lead role and while Hinds has talent, it remains to be seen whether he has enough to be effective within the Big East.
"We'll try to run faster, play faster," Huggins says. "We'll try to play full-court, get more transition, easy baskets."
Aaron Brown (F, Fr.): Can add immediate defensive help.
Gary Browne (G, Fr.): Should be a backup to fellow freshman Hinds.
Pat Forsythe (C, Fr.): Needs to add strength.
Jabarie Hinds (G, Fr.): A quick, athletic point guard expected to start.
Tommie McCune (F, Fr.): Has talent to contribute, but needs to develop.
Keaton Miles (F, Fr.): At 6-7 will see plenty of playing time.
Dominique Rutledge (F, Jr.): Junior college transfer will remind West Virginia fans of John Flowers.