One of the common threads of preseason analysis for the 2010-11 Mountaineers was the identification of Butler's successor. Who would, in the most overused cliché of the day, "step up" to take his place? The answer, it turns out, may be "no one". Or, more correctly, "everyone".
Following West Virginia's 68-62 win over Purdue, attention naturally centered on Kevin Jones, who hit a pair of big 3-pointers and just missed a double-double with 17 points and nine rebounds. For the Purdue game, it was John Flowers, who set out a career-high 24 points. Earlier this year, it's been Casey Mitchell and Deniz Kilicli in the spotlight. But while we've been waiting for a "go-to guy" to emerge every night, as Butler did a year ago, something different has become apparent. Maybe the Mountaineers don't have the "one guy" to do everything in the clutch. Maybe this is the year that the whole is the greater than the sum of its parts.
That's a message that head coach Bob Huggins has preached to his team, and he shared it with the public after an earlier game this year. In trying to get the lesson across that there wasn't anyone on this year's team good enough to win games on their own, he also pointed out that if they play together, they can achieve far beyond what their individual talents might suggest. He reiterated that point after the Purdue game, noting that he put four seniors and a junior on the floor early in the second half because he was tired of seeing players "try to win the game on their own". That lineup, which included Flowers, Kevin Jones, Cam Thoroughman, Jonnie West and Joe Mazzulla, calmed things a bit, and got West Virginia back to running its offense as designed. While the Mountaineers did struggle on occasion, they shot 51.9% from the field in the second half, and scored 10 more points than in the opening period.
While there is still room for big scoring outbursts and stars of the game, it also seems clear that West Virginia can't rely on just one player to carry it over every rough patch. Mitchell, who has shown the ability to score against anyone this year, was completely stifled by the Purdue defense, and couldn't shake free from its clinging defense. With a lack of players that can create their own shots off the dribble, West Virginia has to buy into the "greater than the sum of its parts" mantra, and it should have received ample reinforcement of that with the results of the Purdue win.
"This was as much as any game this year, a total team effort," Huggins summed up. "You can point to Deniz's offensive rebound. You can point to Mazzula's rebound when we were up by two. John Flowers hit at least three huge shots to get us back the lead. Kevin Jones hit three huge shots to get us back even. John made two big steals when we were really really struggling to score that led to scores. We got good minutes from Jonnie. I thought we got good minutes from Pep (Dalton Pepper) in the first half. Deniz scored the ball for us, and because of that, he drew extra help, which enabled us to rebound the ball. Truck made the two free throws to put us up by five. I thought it was a team effort. You can point to a lot of guys and say they made huge plays for us."
Of course, this, like any other scheme, isn't a guarantee of everyday success. There are going to be nights when West Virginia faces more talented teams and simply gets defeated. There will be nights when the ball doesn't bounce its way, when shots that should be in pop out. The Mountaineers aren't likely to go undefeated from here on out. But with ten players that have well-defined roles to play and areas in which they can contribute, WVU can be a force in the Big East conference and in the NCAA tournament – but only if it continues to follow the teamwork path.