WHEELING - Rob Fulford is a proud West Virginian.
Fulford, a Mullens native and a former assistant coach at Mountain State University, is the head coach at Huntington Prep, a basketball academy based out of Huntington that is ranked No. 1 in the country in various nationwide boys' basketball polls.
It's a team that features the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2013 - 6-foot-9, 210-pound small forward Andrew Wiggins, who is unsigned but being chased by all of the usual suspects: North Carolina, Kentucky, etc.
Eleven of the club's 12 players are expected to have Division I futures, with four already signed in Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), Moses Kingsley (Arkansas), Travon Landry (Tennessee), and Dominic Woodson (Baylor). Nearly all of them are ranked in most top-50 lists for the class of 2013.
During the Christmas break, they brought in sophomore Austin Grandstaff, a 6-5 combo guard from Texas who projects as one of the top players in the 2015 class.
The question is, how did they get here?
Fulford left Mountain State University and eventually became the coach at Mountain State Academy, where he was able to take a WVSSAC school and build it into a national prep basketball power prior to its closing two years ago. A Marshall graduate who has a son in high school, Fulford wanted to stay put and keep some top-shelf prep basketball right where it was.
So he started Huntington Prep and used all the connections he had from the AAU circuit to build it into the juggernaut it is today. It's a roster full of top-level international and domestic talent, a top-five prep basketball program in a state that normally reaches the top five in things no one wishes it had.
Because of that, Fulford thinks West Virginia natives should be proud to call the program one of their own.
''(In Mullens), it's in our blood to be competitive,'' said Fulford of an area that also has lent the world L.A. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, former Marshall coach Greg White, Sean Finney, the associate head coach at Central Florida, and Kent McBride, the men's coach at Concord University.
''(West Virginians) should proud of the fact that we have this going at an elite level. The more positive things we have from the state, the better.''
Fulford understands some of the backlash he gets. Not one player on his team is from the state, but he says that's generally no different than it is at West Virginia University and Marshall and points out they still get plenty of backers.
He said folks are starting to take notice, and that extends beyond the stands. They're practically a regular on ESPN high school basketball telecasts, though they won't be featured tonight when the take the floor at Wheeling Jesuit's Alma Grace McDonough Center against Emmanuel Mudiay and No. 7 Prime Prep from Dallas in the Cancer Research Classic. The Express might have been sought after for one of the CRC's nationally televised games Saturday, but they previously committed to another cancer research event in Virginia.
''As the years have gone by, attendance has picked up. There's a lot interest in the program,'' Fulford said. ''We've got the national reputation now.''
Because of that, he can hand-pick recruits, though it wasn't always that way. In going after Wiggins, Fulford watched him play 24 straight AAU games.
''I outworked everyone to get him,'' Fulford said.
Still, they don't take just any elite-level high school basketball player. These guys may be there for basketball, but they're getting a quality education, too. At Huntington Prep, players - usually but not always high school seniors - sign on because it's run like a college program. They go to class at nearby Huntington St. Josephs, a top-notch academic institution. There isn't a lot of time for social activity and the cumulative GPA on this team is 3.12.
Because everyone is so talented, playing time can become an issue, Fulford said. But he's found a way to solve that. He generally won't pull a kid because of a mistake on offense. Mistakes happen, and all of these kids can light up a scoreboard.
The opposing teams are generally built the same way, which is why defense is so important to Fulford. Because defense mostly is about hustle, any mistakes there can buy kids a seat on the bench.
''We've done a really good job of taking teams that like to run and making them a half-court set offensive team,'' Fulford said, noting there's never a good time for his players to slouch.
''Our practices are tougher than our games. Our guys go at it. They do a good job of buying everything that we're selling. They have to know their roles. We hold playing time over their heads. We want to stop other teams.''
Tonight, against Prime Prep, Fulford is hoping the club that is associated with Deion Sanders will see the type of defense it hasn't seen.
''They have a really good team, have some really good players, and so do we,'' Fulford said. ''I think it's going to be a high-level game.
Fulford notes his team hasn't played since Dec. 22.
''When you have a long layoff like that, you tend to be sluggish,'' Fulford said. ''We don't have room to be sluggish.''