- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's no secret: 2011-12 was not West Virginia's best year on the basketball court. That's not the same as calling it a bad year: The Mountaineers still managed to eek out a 9-9 record in the Big East, and they still managed to sneak in to the NCAA tournament before losing to Gonzaga in the first round, and there are plenty of teams that wish they could say the same.
Still, 2012 was not the finest hour in Bob Huggins' tenure at WVU, mostly because his team was often so difficult to watch. Aesthetic value only goes so far, sure, but the Mountaineers were such a poor shooting team, and such a mediocre defensive unit, that their games often came down to a) whether Kevin Jones could carry the load and b) which team rebounded its own misses more frequently. These games were scrums, and they were ugly. Even the most loyal West Virginia fan had to occasionally avert her eyes.
So: What does 2012-13 have in store? The Mountaineers, as you already know, are joining the Big 12. Can Huggy's team compete -- or even contend -- in their new-look league?
If not, it will not be for a lack of talent. Huggins loses Jones and senior guard Daryl "Truck" Bryant, his two leading scorers from last year's campaign, to graduation. The loss of the do-everything Jones -- an adept scorer and dominant offensive rebounder and a four-year stalwart at his position -- will require a particularly difficult adjustment. But despite that loss, Huggins is in many ways reloading. And he has transfers to thank for that.
If West Virginia does indeed plan to compete for the Big 12 title in 2012-13, it may well come down to the play of Aaric Murray, a former La Salle forward, and Juwan Staten, a transfer point guard from Dayton. Both bring tons of talent. At 6-foot-10, Murray is a potential NBA prospect; as a sophomore at La Salle, he grabbed 19.0 percent of opponents' misses and recorded a block on 7.6 percent of available possessions. (He also shot 20-of-57 from 3 that season. There is versatility here, too.) Staten, meanwhile, was one of the nation's best assist men in 2011, his freshman season at Dayton, when his 39.8 percent assist rate ranked him No. 10 in the country. Staten took his fair shot of shots that season (304, to be exact), but his pass-first tendencies nonetheless shone through.
West Virginia is also bringing along a crop of 2012 freshmen -- notably Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne, but Aaron Brown, Keaton Miles and Kevin Noreen all received solid minutes in their first seasons -- as well as one ESPNU 100 talent in No. 12-ranked power forward Elijah Macon, a Columbus, Ohio native who did his hooping and schooling at Huntington Prep. Big-bodied and ably bearded forward Deniz Kilicli returns, and hopefully he will play "Country Roads" on his guitar at Midnight Madness again. That was awesome.
Still, the key players to watch are Murray and Staten, and Staten may prove to be the most important; he offers as much promise as trepidation. Staten is the kind of facilitative point guard the Mountaineers have desperately lacked in recent seasons, particularly when Bryant was running the show. (Hinds and Browne both recorded assist rates above 20 this past season, but West Virginia's offense was hardly flowing.) If Staten is content to be that kind of player, and Murray and Kilicli and Huggins' other forwards hit the glass with the usual Hugginsian intensity, then West Virginia is almost guaranteed to improve in 2012-13. But if Staten is still mired in some of the things that precipitated his Dayton transfer in the first place -- bad chemistry with teammates, a bad reputation among his coaches, those sort of things -- the Mountaineers are going to struggle early and often on both ends of the floor.
There are many uncertainties for this team, from two bigtime transfers to a batch of freshmen with a year of experience under their belts, to a freshman power forward that may or may not make an immediate impact. Until Huggins gets his players on the floor in the fall, the best West Virginia fans can do is picture it in their mind's eye. Midnight Madness will be a fascinating experience, no doubt (and not just for Kilicli's strumming). But if all goes well, the team WVU fans see in 2012-13 could be much improved, capable -- at least -- of battling in the top half of its new league in its first Big 12 season.
At the very worst, this team should be more entertaining -- or, you know, less difficult to watch. For a squad with this many questions, the Mountaineers may offer some potentially exciting answers.