AP Sports Writer
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins wants to unleash a smarter version of his frenetic defense this season.
“Press Virginia” led the nation in steals and forced turnovers a year ago. But at times the Mountaineers were too aggressive in the full-court press.
West Virginia committed by far the most fouls in Division I, averaging more than 23 per game.
“We made some dumb, careless fouls,” Huggins said. “We’ve just got to do a little bit better job of being more cognizant, I guess, of not getting in foul trouble. We fouled some people in traps, which you should never do.”
The press was fun and almost exhausting to watch and helped the Mountaineers get to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in Huggins’ eight seasons.
But sometimes it didn’t work in Big 12 play, and it led to their worst-ever loss in the tournament, where top overall seed Kentucky jumped to an 18-2 lead in the Midwest Regional semifinals and won 78-39.
West Virginia finished 25-10 and returns most of that roster this season.
“It was a fun ride. It just didn’t last long enough,” Huggins said. “So we’re kind of hell bent on making it last a lot longer now.”
To do that, the Mountaineers must find a way to replace leading scorer Juwan Staten and Gary Browne. The guards were the only two seniors on last year’s roster.
“We potentially could be better at every position,” Huggins said. “We’re going to miss those two guys, obviously. As the season goes on, we’ll miss them less and less.”
Huggins is confident that the ball-handling duties will be in good hands with Jevon Carter, who led the team with 67 steals and 48 3-pointers, along with Tarik Phillip.
The offense will focus more on forward Devin Williams, who averaged 11.6 points and 8.1 rebounds and is the only returning double-digit scorer.
Other top returnees include forward Jonathan Holton (7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and guard Daxter Miles Jr. (7.3 ppg). Both started every game a year ago.
Here are some other things to look for from the Mountaineers:
SHOOT BETTER: West Virginia finished 288th nationally last season in field-goal percentage at 40.8, tying for the worst percentage under Huggins. The Mountaineers didn’t surpass 50 percent shooting over the final 19 games.
SCOUTING ESA: One of the top newcomers this season could be 6-8 freshman Esa Ahmad, whom Huggins said could play the shooting guard or either forward position. He was West Virginia’s second-leading scorer during three exhibition games in the Bahamas. “He’s one of those guys that just knows how to play,” Huggins said. “I think that is the first thing I’ve noticed when I watched him. I think the more I watched him, the more I realized this guy has a great aptitude to understand basketball. I think that’s his biggest attribute.”
TOUGH SCHEDULE: The Mountaineers will play Virginia at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8 and will have its most challenging stretch over a 10-day period starting in late January with road games at Florida, Iowa State and Kansas wrapped around a home game with Baylor.
NO BEETLE: Freshman guard James “Beetle” Bolden was lost for the season after tearing knee ligaments in practice this month.
HUGGINS WINS: With 765 career wins, Huggins has a chance to move into the top 10 in victories among coaches with a minimum of 10 seasons in Division I. Lou Henson is 11th with 779 wins, Lute Olson is 10th with 780 and Lefty Driesell is ninth at 786.
Last season: 25-10, lost in NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinals.
Conference: Big 12.
Key returners: Forward Devin Williams (11.6 points, 8.1 rebounds), forward Jonathan Holton (7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), guard Jevon Carter (8.1 ppg). Williams and Holton are the focal points of a team trying to establish more of an inside presence. But the pair committed by far the most fouls and were responsible for one fourth of West Virginia’s turnovers last season.
Who left: Leading scorer Juwan Staten, Gary Browne. The starting guards were the Mountaineers’ top two assists leaders.
The Skinny: The Mountaineers will continue to press to force turnovers but need to improve a 40.8 shooting percentage that was second worst in the Big 12. Highly touted freshman forward Esa Ahmad could be a key to the Mountaineers returning to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in Huggins’ nine seasons.