It’s no secret that Bob Huggins gravitates toward players with a strong work ethic. He has had countless of them throughout his four-decade coaching career.
In previous seasons, one way to describe the makeup of the Mountaineers was by saying they worked with a “treadmill mentality.”
The treadmill isn’t front and center this year, but the Bear has a group of players who constantly want to be in the gym, and constantly want to get better.
“We’re blessed, I think in that fact that the majority of our guys — not all of our guys, but the majority of our guys — like being in the gym,” Huggins said Friday. “So they’re in there regardless. Now, they’re not running up and down, but they’re working on their craft.”
Jimmy Bell Jr. is the most obvious example of what time in the gym and the weight room can do for a player. Bell dropped roughly 80 pounds over the offseason to get down to his current playing weight and become a strong, athletic post player for WVU.
On the other hand, fellow forward Tre Mitchell has added around five pounds from his listed weight at Texas. Mitchell, the reigning Big 12 Men’s Basketball Player of the Week, is continuing to work on his physical makeup as conference play looms.
“For me, it’s just a matter of getting in even better shape, and letting the game come to me,” Mitchell said. “That’s kind of just all I’m really focused on right now, is getting into the best conditioning to get into Big 12 play and be as physical and be as in-shape as you have to be to compete in it.”
Mitchell appeared in eleven Big 12 contests with the Longhorns last year before taking an indefinite leave of absence in February. Only four players on the WVU roster have more Big 12 experience than Mitchell, though a few other players do have a wealth of playing experience in other major conferences.
It’s not just from a physical standpoint that the practice facility has been so important for the Mountaineers this year. The on-court chemistry has greatly benefited from the time that players have practiced with one another.
“I think there’s a maturity that comes with this group, that they’ve just been experienced (players), and they’re to a point now they’re hungry and they want to win, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get there,” said Mitchell. “That’s just another blessing to be on a team like this that there’s absolutely no egos. That dudes really want to come out here and compete and get better every single day.”
From an offensive standpoint, players and coaches saw the potential of this group during summer workouts. Veteran guard Erik Stevenson was the latest to say as much. However, the amount of time that players have put in on the court with one another has been rewarded with the freedom to do what they see fit on that end of the court.
“Our summer stuff was a grind. It was pretty brutal. It prepared us for what we’re doing now, and how we’re trying to play,” Stevenson said.
The other side of the court — defense — is still a work in progress.
“Defensively, we really had to buckle down, and that started in practice,” said Stevenson. “Just from watching the games, and being a part of the games, it feels like we’re playing better defensively as a team.”
WVU has spent plenty of time in the gym recently. The Mountaineers haven’t played since defeating UAB on Dec. 10. After Sunday’s home contest against Buffalo, Huggins and company will have just one more game before the start of conference play on New Year’s Eve.
Along with some time to rest ahead of another grueling year in the Big 12, the spread-out schedule allows the Mountaineers to work and fine-tune things before league play gets underway.
Huggins said last week, ahead of the scheduled gap between games, that the majority of players are most comfortable when they’re in the gym. He was speaking generally about basketball players when he said it, but it was also a look into the type of group he has this year and a reason why he believes WVU is “blessed” to have them.