After losing four starters and five of its top six players, West Virginia was expected to rebuild this season. However, five returning players have shown marked, and in some cases remarkable, improvement over last year, and a talented freshman has contributed as well.
Forward Frank Young is currently 14th in the league in scoring at 14.5 ppg. Last year, when he averaged a mere 7.4 ppg, he was generally the fourth option on offense, but this year he is often the first or second option. Perhaps most impressive is his 43.6% shooting percentage on three-pointers this year, an increase of 12.3% compared to last season. In fact, he leads the conference with 3.4 three-pointers per game. Ironically, he is not a very good free throw shooter (64.0%). Still, he has become an extremely dangerous offensive player.
Darris Nichols was the back-up point guard last season but has progressed to the point where he could be a legitimate candidate for the all-conference team. While he is averaging a modest 10.0 ppg, he has been very efficient on offense. He is shooting 49.0% overall and 40.0% on three-pointers, almost double the 21.9% he shot from behind the arc in 2005-2006. He ranks sixth in the conference in made three-pointers at 2.5 per game. Plus, he is money in the bank from the free throw line as he is #2 in the conference at 88.9%. However, perhaps most impressive, Nichols, who is averaging 4.7 apg, has a terrific assist/turnover ratio of 3.7/1.0, which is tops in the conference. He has committed only 19 turnovers in 15 games, an incredible stat for a point guard.
Sophomore Joe Alexander has been a major surprise for the Mountaineers. Possibly the team's best all-around athlete, Alexander gives the team a dimension it lacked last year, a 6'8" player who can sky. After playing in only nine games (for a total of 35 minutes) last season, Alexander is averaging 12.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg. He can score inside or outside (37.3% on treys). Like Young, however, he is not a good free throw shooter. But Alexander's contributions are not limited to offense. His quickness, length, and jumping ability have made WVU's 1-3-1 zone even more difficult to attack than it was last season.
Many of the same statements can be made about fellow sophomore Alex Ruoff, a 6'6" guard. He brings more athleticism to the court than did last year's starter at the 2, Joe Herber. His quickness and athleticism make Coach John Beilein's zone even more formidable. In fact, Ruoff ranks third in the conference in steals, right behind McNeal and one slot ahead of James. Offensively, Ruoff, who played in only 21 games last year (for a total of 83 minutes), does a bit of everything. He is averaging 9.7 ppg and is shooting a very respectable 38.4% from behind the arc. He is also solid at the line where he is shooting 77.8%. However, it's his passing that is most notable. He is averaging 5.0 apg, good for sixth in the conference, and he has an assist/turnover ratio of 2.4/1.0, fourth in the league.
At center, former Penn State player Rob Summers averages 24.5 mpg. He, too, played very little a year ago as he averaged 3.8 mpg. He is not a scoring threat – only 5.1 ppg, and he's an average rebounder – 5.5 rpg. However, he has managed to grab around three offensive boards per game.
Freshman Da'Sean Butler has been an effective sixth man for Coach Beilein. In only 21.1 mpg, he's averaging 9.3 ppg on 51.4% shooting. His three-point percentage is a respectable 35.9%, good enough to keep defenses honest when he has the ball beyond the arc. Butler also brings more athleticism to the defensive end than the Mountaineers had last year with Beilein's son, Patrick filling the sixth-man role. He is longer and quicker than Beilein was, and he has shown good court sense, especially for a freshman.
West Virginia presents a few unique challenges for any opponent. On offense, they rely on the trey more than any other conference team. In fact, for the season they are averaging 29.1 three-point attempts a game and are making 11.2 treys per game. Against Villanova, the Mountaineers shot 37 three-pointers and made 15 (40.5%). However, against UConn, they took only 21 treys and made only 6 (28.6%). Still, that performance has been the exception so far, not the rule.
WVU's perimeter marksmanship could be a huge problem, especially since Marquette ranks 13th in three point field goal defense. MU must not give up open looks from the perimeter, though that's difficult because of how well WVU passes. Also, they generally have four players on the court that can knock down the trey, so it's not a matter of focusing on one or two shooters.
WVU also uses a motion offense that relies on screens off the ball and back-door cuts. Opponents that extend too far and/or overplay the passing lanes can be victimized by pinpoint passes for easy lay ups. Beilein's team is very disciplined. They are third in the conference in assists and second in assist/turnover ratio of 1.6/1.0. (MU ranks 14th in this category.) In fact, WVU ranks #1 in the conference in assist-to-turnover margin at +8.9.
On the defensive end West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone can cause opponents fits, partially because it's not a common scheme, but also partially because the Mountaineers play it so well. In fact, WVU ranks #1 in scoring defense in the league, allowing only 51.8 ppg. For their four conference games, only UConn scored as many as 60 points (71), and the four league opponents have averaged 57.8 ppg against the Mountaineers. While St. John's is hardly a scoring machine, both Villanova and Notre Dame have quite a few dangerous offensive players, but the Mountaineers shut both teams down.
The key for MU on offense is keep the ball moving to avoid the double-team traps along the sideline and the baseline, particularly in the corners. Marquette must also be patient and not take quick, long-range shots. Instead, they have to find the creases in the zone and attack the basket both off the dribble and with crisp passes. So far, Marquette has shown neither the ability to move the ball quickly or be patient. In this game, those mistakes could be fatal.
One final word about the Mountaineers: this team is considerably more athletic than previous WVU teams. At point guard, Nichols is just as quick, if not quicker, than last year's point guard – J. D. Collins. Plus, Nichols can hit the perimeter shot whereas Collins was a terrible shooter, which is why he seldom shot.
Ruoff and Alexander can both create their own shot. They are skilled ball handlers, tall, and athletic. Both can shoot over defenders, something Herber and Pittsnogle could not do the past few years. Young looks quicker than he did a year ago, and Butler is a definite step or two up over Beilein as sixth man in terms of quickness and athleticism. The bottom line is that WVU is not a flash in the pan, despite suspicions to the contrary.
Yes, they are still below average on the boards, and yes, their non-conference schedule was weak overall. But they only lost to Arkansas by seven at Arkansas, and they beat North Carolina State by 11. MU will have to bring at least its B+ game to come away with a win.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is a regular poster at MarquetteHoops.com and is also a contributing writer for CHN, the College Hoops Network.