By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In case you haven’t been paying close attention, other than Syracuse, which is a legitimate No. 1 team in America, the Big East may well be suffering through a down year in basketball, which is news to be greeted with a rather large smile here in West Virginia.
There were those who felt that WVU was in for a down season itself, considering that it is so young and inexperienced and that no one really could have foreseen the giant strides forward made by the team’s two seniors — Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant.
Certainly the league’s traditional powers have shortcomings.
Consider, if you will, the Saturday results. It was then that Connecticut, traditionally as powerful an entry in the Big East as there is, lost its second game in a row in New Jersey, this to young Rutgers. It came, too, in a game in which you would expect the Huskies to be at their most intimidating best, the day Coach Jim Calhoun returned from his three-game suspension.
UConn, of course, is West Virginia’s next opponent and it has little time to shake off the effects of those two defeats as it hosts WVU at 7 p.m. today in Hartford.
If you were to define the Big East’s traditionally most powerful teams you would Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt and Louisville.
Well, on Saturday, Pitt lost its fourth consecutive game. The Panthers are a team that is banged up and playing poorly, a team that lost its top freshman, who opted to transfer elsewhere after playing just seven games; a team whose point guard Tray Woodall has played once in seven games; and a team that has gone from the intimidating defensive team in the conference to one that teams are scoring at will against.
And as for Louisville, that was a Notre Dame team playing without its best player, Tim Abromaitis, who is out for the year with a knee injury, that beat Rick Pitino and the Cardinals in double overtime.
Of the four teams that normally define Big East basketball, only Syracuse won. What’s more, Villanova, which is another traditional power, is off to a mediocre 8-8 start with a 1-3 Big East record.
The point is that West Virginia, as young as it is, well may be the second best team in the conference behind Syracuse, and that could evolve into a nice seed in the NCAA Tournament after what could be a long run in the Big East Tournament.
How good is West Virginia? No one seems to really know. The Mountaineers have played three nationally ranked teams and defeated two of them, the only loss being to Baylor by two points in overtime.
With a coach like Bob Huggins at the switch, you know they aren’t afraid to go head to head with any nationally ranked teams.
And why should they be? When you look at today’s college basketball, the way underclassmen leave early, the best thing you can have is a good senior, and WVU has two of them in Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant, who could wind up competing for the Big East Player of the Year honors.
Certainly, if a vote were to be taken today, Jones would be a lock as the league leader in scoring at 19.7 points a game and rebounding at 11.7 boards per contest.
Bryant is no slouch, having raised his scoring average to 18.7 points a game heading for UConn, riding a streak in which he has scored 25 or more points in three of his past four games.
But their value may be more as leaders than as scorers or rebounders.
Talking about how a trip and a loss to Connecticut followed by a Bob Huggins lecture turned the 2010 team around so that it ran off 10 wins in a row and reached the Final Four, Jones and Bryant believe they are equipped to do the same thing at a key moment for this team.
“Me and Truck, we understand it better than the young guys will,” Jones said. “When you have a bunch of young guys who get bored when they hear the same thing, that’s when me and Truck come in and have to express to them what the game means and what the Big East games mean.”
It’s one thing to hear it from a coach who gives many lectures and another to hear it from one of your own, someone who has as much to lose as you do and who wants to accomplish exactly the same things that you want.
“It’s a senior season thing. We want to go out the best way we can as seniors,” Bryant said.
The 3-1 start in conference, the only loss being at Seton Hall, a much improved team, says this could be a surprisingly effective season for the Mountaineers, but a lot of that will have to do with what they do in this game against a Connecticut team that now has its back against the wall.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.