By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If they had played for Xavier — Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli — they would have become The Three Musketeers, with all due apologies to Alexandre Dumas, considering the nickname of that Cincinnati school.
Instead, because they form the heart and soul of the West Virginia basketball team, it is best to simply call them The Three Mountaineers.
In fiction, the Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their motto was “all for one, one for all,” just as it is with Jones, Bryant and Kilicli.
True, they have not mouthed the words in just that manner, but everything they have said and done in this transition season for WVU basketball has echoed those sentiments.
The Turkish translation, coming from Kilicli, affectionately known as “The Turk” due to his Istanbul upbringing, was expressed Wednesday night after they led the Mountaineers to an 82-69 victory over Villanova in the Big East opener.
“Us three got to put everything out there and let the freshmen work around it,” he said.
And that was just what they had done. Kilicli had battled through a painful hip injury, Jones had hit the floor and split open his eyebrow, a nasty, bloody gash that would require stitches but that could not keep him from returning, and Bryant stepping forth and taking over the game as only a senior can.
It was Kilicli who defined just what 11,262 fans had witnessed on the floor from Bryant, who previously had never scored more than 27 points in a college basketball game.
“He’s a senior now. He understands how to play. He has that foundation in the three years of his career,” he said.
It is difficult to understand just what it means to be a senior in college basketball, a sport where it make take four or five years for an athlete to obtain his academic degree but where they often can begin their professional career in a year or two, bypassing their best college seasons.
“Look at Da’Sean,” said Kilicli, referring to former WVU player Da’Sean Butler. “He had good games when he was a junior, but as a senior he had great ones. He understood the game. It’s another year of experience.”
Indeed, Butler’s junior and senior years were terribly similar in all departments … except one.
While as a junior he averaged 17.1 points a game and as a senior averaged 17.2, in that final season he was an overpowering force on the floor who could take his team all the way to the Final Four.
He found a way to sink five game-winning shots, a way to fill in as a point guard when needed there even though his natural position was as a forward. He was a player as a junior, a leader as a senior.
So it is with Jones and Bryant, the two seniors on the team, and Kilicli, who is a junior partner, so to speak due to the experience he has over this freshman-rich team of Bob Huggins’.
These are the three men who know about the physicality of the Big East, about the way you have to play every minute of every game. Taking one play off in the Big East can cost more than just a basket. It can cost a game, an NCAA bid.
And so it was the light really went on when conference started, especially for Bryant, who lit the Coliseum up with 34 points that resulted out of a non-stop generator that drove him on offense, on defense and in rebounding.
With Kilicli limping from his hip problem and Jones trying to get through a game before needing a trip for a transfusion from the Red Cross, it was Bryant who would take charge. Earlier this year it was Jones who was scoring and rebounding, leading the Big East in both departments.
But far more important than leading the Big East was he fact they were leading the freshmen, showing them how be physical, showing them how to play with pain, how to practice with it.
If Jones and Bryant were putting up the statistical numbers, Kilicli was putting up with the pain.
He had been first injured against Missouri State before the Baylor game in Las Vegas.
“I couldn’t lift my left leg for 3 days but I practiced on it,” he said. “I played the Baylor game.
I took ibuprofen but it doesn’t work. In Baylor game I started OK, but then I got hit and went straight down.”
He got it together for Villanova, only to get his feet tangled under the basket and go down hard on his hip again.
But he did what he had to do. You know, one for all, all for one.
“I thought he was tentative at first, honestly,” Huggins said. “When we lost KJ he was much better. Deniz has to be physical to be effective. I thought as the game went on he became more and more engaged in the physicality that was going on.”
Now the Mountaineers head for Seton Hall and a game today, time for The Three Mountaineers to show the freshmen what it’s like to play in a Big East road environment.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/bhertzel.