West Virginia believes that this year is going to be different.
After finishing 16-17 and last in the Big 12, the Mountaineers retooled the roster bringing in a total of nine new players many of which came from the transfer and junior college ranks.
One of the main things that the Mountaineers searched for with additions is simply a toughness and competitive spirit that was missing when it comes to most of the roster last season. And if the practices are any indication, that has certainly been accomplished.
“Everybody wants to win and once you have guys that buy in it works. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win whether that’s diving for a loose ball, whatever it is, the little things,” forward Emmitt Matthews said.
Head coach Bob Huggins has already seen a broken nose, scrapes and bruises emerge from practice with how physical the Mountaineers have been from a competition level.
“It’s a badge of courage. They all came here to play. It’s helped the younger guys because they’re looking around knowing that they have to be competitive if they’re going to play,” Huggins said. “I think it’s been really good from a competitive standpoint.”
For example, in one pre-season practice big man Jimmy Bell, who is currently tipping the scales at 280-pounds, dove head first after a loose ball on the floor and then guard Seth Wilson, along with some others followed. The impact forced Bell’s face into the ball and resulted in a bloody nose.
Bell would come back and finish the practice, according to senior guard Kedrian Johnson.
“I’d say we’re a pretty tough team. If you watched a practice,” Johnson said.
Those physical situations have been common place at practice, but importantly that has remained on the court and not spilled over into other areas. It’s a sign that the team is developing bonds off the court and becoming a much closer unit than the previous one.
“I looked at Huggs during one altercation and he was just sitting there smiling and laughing,” Johnson said.
Huggins has had very few teams in his coaching career that haven’t been close off the court and that makes what has been developing with this club all the more important. In fact, the head man jokes that his teams often unite under the common cause of hating him.
It’s one of the major differences that one of the few holdovers from last year in Johnson has observed.
“It’s a big change with people being in the gym, working out. And attitudes on the court wanting to share the ball, the ball, happy for teammates when they score and make plays so obviously our chemistry is a lot better early on,” he said.
Competitive and rowing in the same direction is a good start for this year’s edition of the team.