The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 12, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU men still a team of mystery

MORGANTOWN — A week ago some of us remembered to set our clocks back, and in a way, that is what we are going to be doing this evening as we head over to the Coliseum for a day that has become as meaningful and anticipated as the first day of football season.

Basketball opens and only once before in the history of West Virginia University has it done so after a season that produced a Final Four team on the men’s side. And it never has dawned off a 29-victory season for the women.

If the West Virginia program does not carry the historical significance of UCLA, Duke or North Carolina, the statue of “The Legend” Jerry West standing out front of the Coliseum gives it an authenticity few can match.

And on display this opening night are two teams which may lift the Mountaineers even more toward the top of the college basketball hierarchy, the women’s team being nationally ranked at No. 11 and the men badly underrated by being unranked.

The problem with the men, you see, is the lasting image everyone has of West Virginia basketball last season is that of Da’Sean Butler laying in pain on the floor in Indianapolis, a gruff coach Bob Huggins warmly cradling his head.

It was a knee injury that mattered not to the outcome of the national semifinal game against Duke that had been decided early when the Blue Devils threw everything but the water bucket through the hoop from 3-point range, but it was tragic in its effect on Butler and, perhaps, on the lasting image of him and the season WVU had just enjoyed.

Butler was certainly going to be a rich young man, perhaps a lottery pick in the NBA draft, until his knee was torn apart on a baseline move as he valiantly tried to get WVU back from a 17-point deficit. Instead he became a second round pick of Miami, then had to be released when they needed the roster room more than they could wait for him to heal, perhaps six months down the road.

With him and the gifted Devon Ebanks gone, the pundits opted to see what West Virginia didn’t have rather than to realize what it had this year.

If nothing else, it is difficult to underestimate Huggins as a coach. He does not coach very many unranked teams. You can’t while winning 670 career games to rank behind only Mike Kzyzewski, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, all Hall of Famers, among active coaches.

They underestimate, too, his new go-to player, a quiet sharpshooter who can play with his back to the basket or on the baseline, who can drop a trey on you if you give him an inch and drive past you if you don’t.

Kevin Jones, taking over Butler’s role, is the real deal, a New York City kid whose eyes are set squarely on a career in the NBA.

“He’s our best player,” Huggins said. “He’s probably as versatile as anybody in the league. He can step outside and make shots. He can play off the dribble a little bit. He’s very good with his back to the basket. He’s really learned to feel and go away from pressure. He’s passing the ball well.”

They haven’t looked, either, at the combination of guards Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla, Bryant able to shoot and pass and run a break, Mazzulla less of a shooter, more of a tough-guy, so tough that Huggins once had him guard a 6-9 player and he ate his lunch.

And they have not seen the new, improved version of John Flowers, an athletic forward in his final year who walks on air and suddenly seems to have discovered a three-point shot to go with it.

Then, too, last year they only got glimpses of “The Turk”, Deniz Kilicli, a raw-boned 6-9 Turkish import who is an inside force and gives off a thousand kilowatts of electricity when he’s operating near the basket.

It is, you see, an unknown team that will grow as the season wears on, a team that is challenged by a difficult schedule, beginning with tonight’s 9 p.m. (tipoff will probably be closer to 9:30) battle with Oakland, Mich., an NCAA Tournament team that won 26 games last year and features Keith Benson, an AP All-American honorable mention from last year who at 6-11 holds the school record for blocks in a season and career.

It’s a tough challenge, far tougher than your normal opener, but then Huggins never was one to pick on the patsies when he had a team he thought could be good.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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