Bob Huggins doesn't profess to know a lot about ducks and has never gone duck hunting. However, the West Virginia coach has talked to enough duck hunters to understand the sport.
"Every day some of the ducks get shot and some of them fly away," Huggins said. "But the ducks that didn't get shot always come back the next day. Our players are like those ducks. They just don't learn. We go over and over things in practice and yet they still keep doing the same things we tell them not to."
If you get the idea Huggins is a little frustrated with his Mountaineers to this point in the season, you're absolutely right. West Virginia is 7-2 but, in the eyes of Huggins, they're not nearly as strong as the team that went to the Final Four last season.
"We're not the same team," junior guard Daryl "Truck" Bryant said, mindful that the Mountaineers lost three starters, two of whom (Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler) who were taken in the NBA draft.
"We have some of the same guys back but it's a different team, a different season. We have new guys in the lineup, new guys in the rotation. We're not where we want to be yet. It's a process right now and we're still trying to come together as a team."
West Virginia, though, will need to start coalescing fairly soon as it has just one non-conference game remaining before opening Big East play on December 29 against St. John's. The Mountaineers' final non-conference tune up doesn't figure to be a breeze as they host unbeaten Cleveland State (12-0) on Saturday.
Huggins' team was picked to finish fifth in the Big East in the pre-season poll of conference coaches, but right now the head coach isn't thinking that far ahead. Instead, Huggins is just trying to figure out how to get some consistency from his young team.
"What's troubling is we're not consistent in our work ethic," Huggins said. "Not being consistent in your play is one thing. Not being consistent in your work ethic is troubling."
Huggins has tried various ploys to get his team to respond. He lit into his players at halftime of their game with Robert Morris last week and the Mountaineers responded by turning a 32-28 game into an 82-49 laugher. Huggins has also shuffled the starting lineup. Yet he's still searching.
"It's not like I have McDonald's All-Americans," Huggins said. "Our guys need to work hard and play smart to win. We can't just rely on sheer talent to win games."
Though they may not be playing with a sense of urgency on the floor, the Mountaineers claim they realize that they must step up the effort between now and the St. John's game.
"We're not close to being where we need to be to compete in the Big East," junior forward Kevin Jones said. "In all areas of the game we need work." The tempo-free statistics, though, indicate that West Virginia is playing better than it thinks. The Mountaineers are ninth in the nation with a 116.2 adjusted offensive efficiency and 47th with a 91.6 adjusted defensive efficiency.
"We've played well in the second halves of a lot of games and we did that a lot last season, too," Bryant said. "Still, you can't rely on pulling games out in the second half. We have to give a more consistent effort, especially once we get into the Big East because it's an unforgiving league."
Senior guard Casey Mitchell has been West Virginia's best player with a 125.9 offensive rating while averaging 17.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 27.2 minutes a game after being all but a non-entity in his first year with the Mountaineers in 2009-10. He had 3.7/0.9/0.4/8.2 averages last season a year after being selected as the national junior college player of the year. Huggins attributes last season's struggles to the battle that Mitchell's mother was waging against cancer.
Yet Mitchell has been the epitome of the inconsistency that has Huggins flummoxed. The senior scored at least 25 points in four consecutive games early in the season. However, in the last two games, Mitchell managed just six points against Robert Morris and two in a 64-61 victory over Duquesne on Sunday. In fact Mitchell didn't start and played just 13 minutes against the Dukes, with Huggins citing a lack of effort as the reason for keeping his player on the bench.
"We just have a lot of guys who must have been descendants from ducks at some point," Huggins said.
Saturday will mark the debut of three high-profile players.
When Kansas hosts USC, Jayhawks freshman guard Josh Shelby will be playing in his first college games after serving an NCAA-mandated nine-game suspension. Meanwhile Trojans junior guard Jio Fontan will be making his debut for his new team after transferring from Fordham. Rounding out the trio is Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney, who sat out all of last year and the first nine games of this season because of an NCAA-imposed suspension. Sidney will at last log his first minutes as a Bulldog when MSU plays Virginia Tech Saturday night in the Bahamas.
By some lights Selby was considered the top recruit in the nation among this season's freshman class. Though he's been practicing with the first team, Kansas coach Bill Self is leaning toward bringing him off the bench Saturday.
"He has to beat somebody out," Self said. "He needs to perform well in the games, and not just practice, but he's going to give us some scoring punch. He's certainly a threat when he catches the ball. He has to figure how to play to our other guys' strengths and they have to figure out where to get him the ball in certain situations and play to his strengths. It'll take a little bit of time."
Selby is a natural point guard, but Self will play him at off-guard and keep Tyshawn Taylor at the point. The coach figures there's no reason to disrupt the chemistry of a team that's 9-0.
"Josh is going to end up being a true point guard in time," Self said. "It's a lot to throw at a guy, 'OK, you are not only responsible for yourself, you are responsible for every single possession, and if we don't have a good one, it's going to basically be your fault.' I'd rather put that on Tyshawn right now than Josh."
Fontan, whom USC coach Kevin O'Neill calls "our best player," will immediately step into the lineup at point guard. Fontan made the Atlantic 10's all-rookie team two seasons ago when he was 26th in the nation in assist rate (34.3), 37th in percentage of possessions (30.5) and 85th in percentage of minutes (86.6) while averaging 15.3/2.7/4.7/34.6.
O'Neill, whose team is 6-4, hopes that the presence of Fontan on the perimeter will keep opposing defenses from collapsing on forwards Alex Stephenson (8.6/8.3/0.0/31.6) and Nikola Vucevic (16.5/10.6/2.0/35.9).
"Our plan for the year is to go inside with the ball," O'Neill told the Los Angeles Daily News. "That's who we're going to be. We need to run our offense through our post guys."
Sidney, meanwhile, is expected to provide a major boost to a Mississippi State team off to a 7-2 start. The 6-foot-10, 275-pounder has been hearing Shaquille O'Neal comparisons since he was in junior high school and apparently believes them, too.
"I'm too dominant," Sidney said. "I don't think anybody in the nation or the world can guard me in the block. Coach (Rick Stansbury) has done a great job teaching me the low-post moves and keeping me on the block."
Sidney's teammates are hoping he's as good as advertised. "There's been a countdown ever since he's been on campus," senior forward Kodi Augustus told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Rutgers is off to a surprising 7-2 start under first-year coach Mike Rice, albeit against a soft schedule rated as the 40th-weakest in the nation by kenpom.com.
The Scarlet Knights' biggest surprise has been the play of freshman center Gilvydas Biruta. The Lithuanian is playing the post out of necessity because Rutgers lacks size. Yet Biruta has responded with a 9.0/5.0/0.6/19.6 line. He is also 60th in a nation with an 8.6 block percentage. Those are pretty decent numbers for a guy who was a perimeter player in Europe.
"Eventually he will play a little bit more on the perimeter, but he's got to get better on the perimeter before we make him a Toni Kukoc-type of player," Rice told Gannett New Jersey Newspapers. "With his relentlessness, he's more Tyler Hansbrough than Toni Kukoc right now."
Biruta says he has been able to make up for a lack of size in the pivot by playing with "energy and toughness." He has impressed Rice, who is not the easiest guy to impress.
"I knew I had a hard worker and a passionate player from the first workout we had," Rice said. "He plays harder than anybody I've ever had. At Robert Morris, I had complete warriors, and he's as good as they were as far as effort and trying to improve."
One of the most improbable stories so far this season is UCF getting off to a 9-0 start, the first time in school history the Knights have won their first nine games. It's pretty good stuff for a team that finished ninth in Conference USA last season and has a new coach in Donnie Jones, who made the jump from conference rival Marshall.
"We're just being aggressive and making teams play our style of basketball, and that's a huge reason why we're winning," said sophomore guard Marcus Jordan, the son of basketball legend Michael Jordan. "There definitely is a belief in what we're doing. There's a lot more freedom, and we're making teams play our game."
UCF has done its damage against the 50th-weakest schedule in the nation, according to kenpom.com. However, the Knights have both shot and defended well so far, as they're third in the nation in effective FG percentage defense (38.7) and 11th in eFG offense (57.6).
Jordan and forward Keith Clanton, also a sophomore, have been shooting exceptionally well. Clanton has a 68.9 true shooting percentage, which ranks 35th in the country, and a 65.7 effective FG percentage, which ranks 40th. Jordan has marks of 69.2 and 63.7, ranking 31st and 69th. Clanton is UCF's leading scorer with a 17.0/9.0/1.7/27.7 line and Jordan has averages 14.9/2.0/3.1/25.7.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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