By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Today’s quandary — and doesn’t it seem there is a quandary every day? — is whether two or three days after a gut-wrenching defeat is long enough to allow one to take a clear view and make a few judgments on the past basketball season and to peer ahead into the coming one.
Emotion plays such a big part in the analysis of any team one either roots for or covers professionally that it often clouds the way a team and a season are viewed.
Certainly, as you look back upon the season that ended in yet another second-half collapse (incredibly, West Virginia’s opponents scored more points in the second half than they did in the first half in 22 of the final 23 games, Kentucky putting the exclamation point on it by adding 38 points onto the 33 it scored in the first half to win by eight) you realize there was no one on the schedule that this Mountaineer team could not have beaten with its best game.
At the same time, some of the losses that looked bad at the time — two to Marquette come to mind — now seem far less devastating.
Make no doubt this version of Bob Huggins’ club was a challenged team, one that fit together far better in the locker room than out on the court, yet one whose character allowed it win 21 games and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Certainly there were moments during the year when the team had to be questioned from the outside. The players knew it, maybe even used it.
“A lot of people didn’t pick us to be where we are midway through the season,” forward Cam Thoroughman said. “When there was all that doom and gloom, we could have packed it in and went home, but we didn’t. We battled through it, and it made us all better basketball players and better people.”
Certainly, Huggins, the coach, would not allow a team to pack it in, even though he was smart enough to know that this was not a vintage team talentwise.
It grew as the year went on, at least those who allowed that to happen.
“I’m really proud of everybody. Nobody went crazy,” Thoroughman said after the Kentucky loss, perhaps forgetting that Danny Jennings used halftime to scrawl a goodbye message on the locker room white board, dress and leave the team. “We all just stuck together and got through it together. I don’t want to say it’s an accomplishment to make it this far because we’re going home, but I am glad we got this far.”
That is not to say there were no problems.
Casey Mitchell was suspended in preseason and during the year; Truck Bryant and Jennings sat out a one-game suspension as WVU played VMI in Charleston; Jennings jumped ship; Kevin Noreen, the lone remaining member of a freshman class of four, suffered a knee injury and wound up redshirting after playing just seven games; Kevin Jones could not find his niche until mid-year.
What they did was allow Joe Mazzulla to will them to success, playing hurt, playing hard, playing above anything he had ever achieved … and he had achieved a lot. With him showing the way and John Flowers reborn as a basketball player, harnessing his athleticism and improving dramatically in all the areas that had held him back, they survived and pushed forward into a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, something they had not done since the days of Jerry West.
“We had some inner-team issues that we needed to figure out, but we had our moments,” Jones said. “We had moments when we looked like a really good team, and we had moments when we looked like a really bad team.”
But win or lose, they were back at it the next day, hungry to prove they could win without Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith, who had taken them all the way to the Final Four the previous year.
The torch, of course, does not go out. Instead, it is passed to this year’s team, one that has the nuts — no offense to any of them — and bolts to build a winner, but one that is guaranteed nothing.
It becomes Darryl “Truck” Bryant and Kevin Jones’ team, if Jones decides to return, for which a good case can be made. They are the seniors, and there are teams with far, far less in the way of senior leadership on hand.
Jones figures to be a star. A workaholic anyway, if he applies himself the way Flowers did in the offseason to work on his shot, he could be one of the Big East’s best players, for he surely is one of the best rebounders and already No. 2 on the WVU all-time list of offensive rebounders.
Bryant, on the other hand, showed in the closing days of the season that he may have more to offer than anyone dreamed in mid-year when he could not put the ball in the basket and was turning it over and over every time he penetrated into the middle.
He smoothed out his game by tournament time, began making shots and contributing on the other end.
“It used to be he couldn’t guard anyone,” Huggins said, “but he has become one of our best defenders.”
If he carries that over into next season, where he can deal with the best Big East guards, the Mountaineers might be all right. Certainly Jones, Bryant and Deniz Kilicli give them a scoring threat, but perhaps the key returning player is Dalton Pepper, the hero of the opening NCAA win with three steals in the final minute and a half. If he can find the offense he showed in high school, WVU could be a dangerous team in the Big East.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.