The Times West Virginian

March 11, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU wondering what could have been this season

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There is nothing unusual about a sleepless Saturday night in a college town like this. All you have to do is tour the downtown clubs at around 2 a.m. and you realize that when you are 21 or so, sleep is situated somewhere alongside mowing the lawn and cleaning out the attic on your list of things to do.

You can always put it off until tomorrow.

Or the next day.

And so it probably was that last night was a restless one for a group of college students at West Virginia who spend much of their time wearing baggy shorts and listening to someone yell at them most of the day.

We are talking, of course, of the West Virginia basketball team, which knows in its heart it belongs in the field of 68 that make up the NCAA basketball tournament but who also know they could have done a whole lot more to assure their position.

This has not been a season to brag about, even if it did begin in a cloud of uncertainty, an uncertainty, by the way, that hasn’t really been addressed by anyone until now.

See, this is a team with three experienced upperclass players in its star and spiritual leader, Kevin Jones; in the mercurial guard Truck Bryant, who can score 32 in one game and zero in the next, as he did once this season; and then the best import from Turkey since the towel, Deniz Kilicli.

But they are surrounded by inexperience, which is never a good thing, while playing on a team depleted by injury.

The real problem, though, is this isn’t the team as it was envisioned a few years back when Bob Huggins was putting it together. The team he had in mind could shoot the ball and score points, unlike this group that has had to rely more on defense than offense.

This was a team that should have been sending Noah Cottrill and Dalton Pepper onto the floor shooting from the outside to complement K.J. and Bryant and Dan Jennings working inside behind Kilicli.

That none of the three remain, each having taken a fork in the road along the way, forcing Huggins to become overstocked on freshmen, has changed history and made Huggins rush his freshmen along faster than he would have liked. They are good freshmen, talented freshmen, but they are not the players he envisioned as he put the squad together.

Pepper is a 6-5, 230-pound small forward who scored a school-record 2,207 points at Pennsbury High in Pennsylvania and grabbed 962 rebounds in leading Pennsbury to four straight undefeated league seasons. The three-time all-state selection capped his incredible career at Pennsbury by being named the 2009 Pennsylvania Big School Player of the Year by The Associated Press.

He probably would have started this year in the place of Keaton Miles, who has been a fine defender but offered little offensive support.

In October 2010, before Cottrill had played for WVU as a freshman, he was suspended from the team indefinitely for “behavior unbecoming a Mountaineer.” He later had a problem with the police and withdrew from school.   

Cottrill began his high school career at Poca before transferring to Mountain State Prep and then Logan, whom he led to the AAA state title in 2010.

And Jennings, who was dismissed from the team after walking out on the team at halftime of a game, leaving a note on the locker room blackboard, found his way to Long Beach State, where he sat out this season as a transfer.

All of that, of course, changed this year’s team tremendously from what had been envisioned, forced it be younger, more inexperienced and far less explosive.

The shame, of course, is that it kept Jones and Bryant, the seniors who had given so much to the WVU program and who had been model citizens, from reaching the heights they may have reached during their senior seasons.

And with it they had to suffer through a season in which WVU would lose 13 games, more than they had lost since 2004, putting them in the position on selection eve that there is no certainty they will be called as a team in the NCAA field.

Would they like to have back a loss to Kent State early in the year, a one-point loss to Marquette late, a three-point loss to Louisville and a two-point loss to Syracuse?

You bet they would, but you can no more change that history than Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Georgetown can change the outcome of the Mountaineers’ 3-, 2- and 2-point victories in the Big East Tournament two years ago as they began their run toward the Final Four.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.