The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 17, 2010

Changes abound after last year’s Final Four season

MORGANTOWN — A year ago, coach Bob Huggins led West Virginia University to the Final Four before losing to Duke.

Perhaps not as talented as some other teams who fell along the way, the Mountaineers proceeded because they knew who they were and what they were, riding the incredible leadership of senior Da’Sean Butler, who just now is beginning to shoot jump shots after rehabbing from surgery to repair the knee he tore in that national semifinal.

This year, as conference play begins on Dec. 29 at home against St. John’s, WVU is a team in search of itself.

It has not been able, through the early going that included seven victories in the first nine games, to forge out an identity, to find a go-to guy in a moment of need.

In many ways the season has been surprising through the early going as Casey Mitchell, a junior college player who came in with the reputation of a scorer but spent his first season battling himself and Huggins, blossomed with a spectacular five-game scoring streak.

After nine games he was leading the team with 17.8 points a game, but that was three points off his season high as his shot fell off and with it his playing time. He was back to his old tricks and against Duquesne actually was put in and pulled from the game before a full tick of the clock, giving up a traditional 3-point play on an out-of-bounds play.

“I was planning on playing him the second half but he gave up a 3-point play on an out-of-bounds play we went over for three days, so ...” Huggins said.

Mitchell’s scoring was a bonus, however, as it had been expected that Kevin Jones, a junior who seemed ready to jump to the NBA at season’s end, would fill Butler’s role.

It didn’t take long, however, to realize that they are different players and that Jones had to do what he does, which is hit a jumper from the outside and then operate near the hoop. The result has been that Jones has averaged only 12.6 points a game.

The point guard play of Darryl “Truck” Bryant has been only adequate, although he has scored 12 points a game, while he has joined with Joe Mazzulla to dish out 65 assists while turning the ball over only 31 times.

The biggest disappointment has been the play of Turkish import Deniz Kilicli, who was expected to be a factor down low but has been unable to stay on the floor as he still is getting the hang of the American game and Huggins’ game, which emphasizes defense. Kilicli has played only 13.1 minutes a game.

After beating Duquesne in a hard-fought, come-from-behind victory, Huggins issued a warning to his team.

“We just got some guys who aren’t committed to being very good. As long as it’s easy, they’re in. Our commitment to excellence is non-existent,” he said. “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of guys who don’t come in and work hard and play. It’s ‘I don’t care.’ Well, I’d just like to have a core of guys who did it right. Then I could just sit those other guys down far away from me.

“When you get to know you’re going to go play in the Big East with six or seven teams in the Top 25 and four in the Top 10, you’d better prepare to win. The truth is, I don’t have a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans sitting in there. I’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to have to work their tails off and the reality is to this point they haven’t.”

You can, however, excuse a few of the Mountaineers from that indictment.

Senior John Flowers has literally risen to the occasion, flying high on the backboards to lead the team in rebounding, blocking 23 shots in nine games and pushing his scoring near double figures. His commitment is best seen in his free-throw shooting, where he is hitting 75.6 percent of his shots, after going three years hitting 38.0 percent, 44.4 percent and 49 percent last year.

“He plays like we used to play,” Huggins said of Flowers. “He gets to the ball. We don’t have anyone else who gets to the ball and, you know what, there isn’t a sport you can play if you don’t get to the ball. Even in golf you’ve got to get to the ball or you can’t hit it.”

Then there have been the two standbys in Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West, who actually had decided not to play this year until coming back to the team after practice had begun and Huggins lost a scholarship player.

Thoroughman comes off the bench and gives energy, rebounding and defense, usually outsized by never outhustled or outmuscled, he has become a fan favorite.

So has West, the son of all-time great Jerry West, whose job is to provide instant offense when the shooting is off and West has had some big moments, none more than against Duquesne as he led the comeback with 10 points off the bench.

“Jonnie,” said Huggins, “he doesn’t screw the game up. At this point, I’m just looking for guys who won’t screw up. I’ve got a bunch of guys who screw it up real bad.”

They are running out of time to get it right.

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

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