Originally Published: October 18, 2012

Faraway Mountaineers Adjust To Life In Big 12

By Jason King

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The mere thought of the Kansas Jayhawks is enough to disgust fans from Kansas State. Texas is feuding with Baylor. And there's a reason folks refer to every Oklahoma-Oklahoma State showdown as "bedlam."

But poor West Virginia.

The 2012-13 basketball season is less than a month away, and the newest member of the Big 12 is still struggling to identify a rival.

"It's probably Iowa State," WVU coach Bob Huggins said. "They're the closest -- only 853 air miles."

It may seem like an odd fit because of its location, but West Virginia couldn't be receiving a warmer welcome into the league.

"Everywhere [Huggins] has been, he's won," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "And he's done it his way. You're going to have to beat them because they're not going to beat themselves. He's one of the great coaches and one of the great personalities in our game."

That was evident Wednesday, when Huggins' quick wit and dry humor kept reporters cackling throughout his 15-minute news conference.

Before taking the West Virginia job, Huggins spent one season in the Big 12 as Kansas State's head coach in 2006-07. At that time, the league was split into North and South divisions, and teams from one division would visit schools from the opposite division every other year.

"I didn't get to go to Lubbock," Huggins deadpanned. "I almost wanted to stay just so I could go to Lubbock the next year, know what I mean?"

Huggins said he's disappointed he won't have the opportunity to go against former assistant Frank Martin, who took over at Kansas State after Huggins left for Morgantown. Martin is now the head coach at South Carolina.

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Mark Zerof/US PresswireBob Huggins spent one year in the Big 12 while at K-State. He's back now with West Virginia.
"At least whoever loses [would've been] happy for the other guy," Huggins said. "It's terrible losing to some guy you don't like. If you're going to lose, lose to someone you like."

If summer workouts and the first week of official practices are any indication, the Mountaineers won't be losing much at all in the coming months thanks to a batch of transfers that will help spell the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Kevin Jones.

Aaric Murray is a 6-foot-10, 245-pound center who averaged 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game as a sophomore at La Salle two years ago. He'll be joined in the starting lineup by Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, a point guard, and possibly shooting guard Matt Humphrey, formerly of Boston College.

"All those guys have practiced with us for a year, so they know how Coach Huggs works," sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds said. "Juwan can get into the lane whenever he wants to. And with Aaric Murray, you're talking about putbacks, dunks, taking to the rim from the perimeter … everything."

Murray's upside is so big that he may be able to leave school after this season and enter the NBA draft. Huggins, though, said Murray is a bit behind because of a broken hand that kept him from practicing with the Mountaineers for much of last season.

Hinds, forward Deniz Kilicli and guards Gary Browne and Aaron Brown are returnees who will also play key roles for a team that finished 19-14 last season and dropped its opening NCAA tournament game by 23 points to Gonzaga.

Overall, West Virginia lost nine of its final 13 contests.

"A year ago, we had seven freshmen, and it was hard," Huggins said. "It was a hard year. We had bad stuff going on everywhere, and we couldn't fix it all at once. Worse than that, they just weren't conditioned to come in and give you great effort every day. I continued to tell them, 'I can't coach basketball if I have to coach effort.'

"At least to this point, this team has had great enthusiasm. They're working so much harder. Hopefully I'll be able to coach them a little bit more."

Even though Kansas is the favorite to win the Big 12 title for an ninth straight time, the conference appears as wide open as it's been in years, with as many as eight teams likely to contend for NCAA tournament berths. With one of the country's best home-court advantages and one of the game's top coaches, Huggins sees no reason the Mountaineers can't be right in the mix.

Barnes agrees.

"He's always had a great ability to rally a fan base," Barnes said. "When that guy fires off that musket at their arena, people are going to jump."

Isaiah Austin Ready To Shine At Baylor

By Mitch Sherman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Isaiah Austin has nowhere to hide. No hoodie or ball cap can disguise this 7-foot-1 Baylor freshman.

So far, Austin doesn't mind the barrage of attention.

"It's cool," he said. "A lot of people ask me a lot of questions. I like meeting new people. I like meeting my fans. At Baylor, anybody who walks up to me, I want to talk to them and see them walk away saying I was pretty nice."

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Jack Arent/Adidas Isaiah Austin was ranked No. 3 in the ESPN 100 rankings for the Class of 2012.
Austin, who grew an inch over the summer and gained 20 pounds to reach 223 as practice opened last week in Waco, said he set a goal to earn the Big 12 freshman of the year award. He has received some buzz as a preseason All-American candidate.

So yes, much is expected of Austin. The graduate of Arlington (Texas) Grace Preparatory Academy ranked as the No. 3 prospect nationally in the 2012 signing class, behind only Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad.

Austin picked Baylor not for its basketball tradition, though the Bears have played twice in the past three seasons in the Elite Eight. Big 12 coaches picked Baylor to finish second in the league this season behind Kansas.

"We made the decision that was best for me," he said.

Austin said many outsiders were surprised by his decision. But Scott Drew's program has placed Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy into the NBA.

That's the dream for Austin too, but he has plenty to keep him occupied at Baylor.

His education continued Wednesday at the Sprint Center for Big 12 Media Day.

"It's opening my eyes to what's to come," Austin said. "This is top of the line. It's serious. It's pretty much like a business. Everybody knows you when you come into college, especially if you're a high recruit like I was. They expect certain things from you. They expect good character. That's what you have to give them."

He turned down scholarship offers from Texas, Kentucky and Georgetown. On Dec. 1, the Bears visit Kentucky, which signed big man Noel, a shot-blocking extraordinaire.

Austin's new teammates and his coach expect him to embrace the challenge.

"He's one of the most versatile players in the nation, regardless of class," said senior guard Pierre Jackson, Baylor's top scorer last season. "He's ready, man. He's a future pro."

Drew said Austin displays an impressive set of skills. He plays close to the basket, of course, but handles the ball well and shoots from distance.

"The biggest thing right away, when you look at him, is you know he can get stronger," Drew said. "He's worked extremely hard on that. Because of that, it definitely will help him inside.

"That versatility makes him special."

Kansas Determined To Keep Streak Alive

By Jason King
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For a few years, it was trendy to predict that a school other than Kansas would win the Big 12 title. Now it's just asinine.

The Jayhawks have claimed eight straight league titles under Bill Self, which explains why they're an almost unanimous choice to win again this season despite losing their top two players (Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor) to the NBA draft.

Nine of the Big 12's 10 coaches picked KU No. 1 in the preseason poll. The only coach who didn't vote for the Jayhawks was Self, who wasn't allowed to pick his squad. Self voted for Baylor.

"What they've done is really amazing," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "When you talk about KU winning all of those, I think there is one guy who is really responsible, and that's Bill. He's just a great coach."

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AP Photo/Orlin WagnerTravis Releford and KU look to make it nine straight Big 12 titles.
Indeed, no team from a major conference has won this many consecutive league titles since UCLA captured 13 in a row from 1967-79. As the season looms, the latest crop of Jayhawks said it's intent on keeping the streak alive.

"I wouldn't say there's pressure," center Jeff Withey said. "It's more about pride. Once you realize that it's more about the school than yourself, you want to keep the tradition going. You don't want to be a part of the team that ended the run."

In some areas, the Jayhawks appear vulnerable. KU has almost zero depth in the backcourt, and a handful of freshmen will have to play significant minutes before they're ready.

Still, the situation is no different than 2006, when Kansas won the title with freshmen Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright after losing seniors Keith Langford, Wayne Simien and Aaron Miles from the previous season's team. Self also found a way win the Big 12 trophy in 2009 despite returning just one key player (Sherron Collins) from the 2008 NCAA championship squad.

Last season, Kansas had to replace four starters -- including the Morris twins -- from a 2011 team that reached the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks responded by winning the Big 12 with a 16-2 record before advancing to the NCAA title game.

"This next team has to bridge that gap," Self said. "You have to have the team that will basically not let it dip. And we've had three teams that didn't allow it to dip."

Chris Walker's Test Run Begins In Lubbock

By Mitch Sherman
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- These Men In Black limit their battles to creatures from Earth. Primarily, in fact, foes from the Big 12.

Texas Tech interim coach Chris Walker, after his Oct. 4 promotion to replace Billy Gillispie, instituted a policy among his staff that required every member to wear black. Every day.

Walker said he hopes the mentality spreads to the Red Raiders' play. They finished 8-23 last season and won one conference game.

"It's to remind ourselves that every time we step on the court, you're on the road," Walker said. "When you're on the road, you're the most focused. Everyone's against you. It's a road mentality. That's what we're going to take on for the season."

Walker talked a big game Wednesday at Big 12 Media Day, refusing to feel sorry for himself because of the interim label.

"People look at it as if I've been diagnosed with cancer," Walker said. They act like he has six months to live, he noted. "I've really flipped it and said, 'It's six months to give.'"

Walker took over after Gillispie resigned last month for medical reasons following allegations of player mistreatment.

The new coach said he plans to quicken the Red Raiders' tempo.

"We may surprise some people," said Walker, who played for Rollie Massimino at Villanova and had coached since 1992 as an assistant at seven schools. "I will say this: Our guys are going to come out and play hard, smart, together every game."

The challenge is steep, said Texas coach Rick Barnes.

"It's a unique situation," Barnes said, "but he obviously has shown the players and staff there. The players, more than anybody, have bought into him."

Actually, it remains a work in progress, with less than a week of practices completed.

"We try to focus on the team," sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert said. "What's the goal? What's the game plan? We're trying to understand him; he's trying to understand us."


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