The Times West Virginian

January 2, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- WVU women will contend in the Big 12

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Time does strange things, often distorting our view of events almost as if we were looking into a fun house mirror.

Consider West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team.

A year ago, it was about to enter play in the Big 12 but did so with little or no hope of winning the conference in its first season as a member school.

Part of the reason was that Brittney Griner was still at Baylor, and she was the best player in the nation on what most figured was the best team in the nation.

But WVU’s inward view of itself was dark, for its best player, Asya Bussie, had torn the inner workings of a knee in practice and required surgery which would put her out for the entire year.

It was a crushing blow, or so it seemed at that moment.

Fast forward a year now, and take a look into that very same mirror.

The injury to Bussie, rather than a crushing blow, is looked upon now as a blessing.

Her knee is healed, and she is the leader of a West Virginia team that has won 11 consecutive games as it enters Big 12 play.

Griner? She has gone wherever it is the great women basketball players go after college, leaving the race wide open in the Big 12.

And West Virginia, which would have been without Bussie had she played out a hopeless season last year, now believes it is among four or five teams that can win the Big 12.

It is a belief that might not be there if Bussie wasn’t there.

“We only had to lose one senior, so this year we go into the second year of the Big 12 with five seniors and a lot of experience. Me sitting out last year worked out and left us with an experienced team,” Bussie said before the Mountaineers took off for their opening game of what coach Mike Carey is calling “the second season” at Kansas.

Bussie brings a strong inside offensive game to WVU.

More important, considering the style of play that Carey emphasizes, Bussie is a defensive force.

“I’ve said it since Asya Bussie has been here; she’s probably the best defensive center in the country,” he said. “That being said, we don’t want to get her in foul trouble. I told her to play position defense, but if they beat you, just let them go. We can’t afford to get you in foul trouble early in the game. She’s smart enough to do that. She’s a veteran.”

She smart enough, in part, because she got to view the game from a different perspective last year, not as a participant but as someone watching from the bench and studying what goes into being a winning player on a winning team.

She also is a team leader. She would have to be the way she worked to get herself back onto the court, determined to make something of her final year.

She is the focal point of the team, the hub around which everything else spins, and this year that is a group of talented, veteran players who can make things happen.

“We will win by defense. We will win by rebounding. We’re scoring a few more points now than we have in the past, and hopefully we’re going to be able to continue to do that,” Carey said.

The idea that this team is scoring more points is important for it always really did play defense.

This season it has made some adjustments, beginning with Bussie drawing defensive attention inside, that had made a big difference.

Carey has freely used both point guards – Linda Stepney and Brooke Hampton – and they are doing a solid job of setting up Christal Caldwell, Bria Holmes and Taylor Palmer, all double-figure scorers.

With Averee Fields also coming on the past couple of games as a scorer, WVU is going to be difficult to defend. Non-conference teams have sagged on Bussie or double- or triple-teamed her, but it’s expected the more talented Big 12 teams will not do nearly as much of that.

“There shouldn’t be as many double teams,” Bussie said. “In practice I’ve been working on posting up against Lanay (Montgomery). She’s tall. There’s a lot of tall players in the Big 12. I worked on a lot of one-on-one moves.”

Everything is in place for WVU to make a run. It should make it a most interesting season.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.