Of course, the conversation at forward has to start with Jones, the only Mountaineer with appreciable experience in college. Jones has that in abundance, having played 106 games for West Virginia during his career. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he'll move into the top five in that category by season's end.
Jones' ability to rebound and pick up extra points on second chances on the offensive end set him apart from other scorers, who require the ball in their hands to create offense. From that standpoint alone, he's one of the most valuable players in Mountaineer history. Early in the season, he'll become the all-time leading offensive rebounder in school history, and has a chance to finish in the top five in total rebounds as well. (With 309 offensive boards, he trails all-tine leader Chris Brooks by 11 entering the season.) Second chance points aren't kept as an official statistic, but if they were, it's likely that he would be at the top of that category as well.
With all of the things that he does well, it might seem unfair to ask Jones to do more this year, but there are a couple of areas where his improvement could have a vital impact on the team. The first is in field goal percentage, where he saw his marks drop by eight percentage points from the field and 10 percent from the 3-point line between his sophomore and junior seasons. Granted, some of that may have been due to increased defensive attention, but learning to score no matter what the circumstances is the next natural step in his progression – and it's something he will have to do to bolster his NBA stock as well.
The second item is his leadership. We touched on this factor when Jones announced his return to West Virginia after testing his status as a possible NBA draft pick. He has always been a "lead by example" guy, which is fine, but he'll have to take an even bigger role this year. Can he do so without going against his personality? Will he have to be more vocal to be effective?
The other returnee, Kevin Noreen, has the advantage of having been with the program for a year, but he played just 39 minutes before being sidelined with a knee injury for the remainder of the year. Some previews have called Noreen "experienced" or "a returning contributor" but that's a stretch of major proportions. Noreen has a high basketball IQ and certainly picked up West Virginia's offensive and defensive systems fairly quickly, but knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things.
On the plus side, Noreen (6-10, 235 lbs.) should be very versatile for WVU. With his height, he should be able to post up shorter defenders, and in his brief time on the court last year he showed good passing ability to go with solid decision-making. He should also be able to play the high post effectively, and during the later stages of his rehabilitation he worked on his mid-range shooting to bolster that aspect of his game. The hope is that he can build on those strengths this year. He could also play the five spot at times, and add another body to the limited depth at that position.
Past Jones and Noreen, the speculation really ramps up. None of the remaining quartet have ever played a Division I basketball game, although one, Dominique Rutledge does have two years of junior college experience on his resume, so we'll start our review of the newcomers with him.
Rutledge (6-8, 230 lbs.) provides size and strength, and with at least three years of age on the other newcomers, he is probably better positioned to make an immediate impact from a physical standpoint. Countering that is the fact that he didn't play basketball during his final year of junior college. No matter how many workouts and runs a player gets, the lack of competitive play is a negative factor, and that's one he'll have to deal with if he hopes to contribute early.
Rutledge does have versatility on his side -– he's quick enough to defend small forwards and big enough to guard on the blocks and in the lane. If he can do those things, he'll earn a spot in the rotation no matter what his scoring ability. He averaged eight rebounds per game during his two juco seasons, and tallied double digits in that category during his high school and prep career. Rutledge won't be the first choice on offense, but he has shown the ability to score around the rim and in the lane, and he could help relive Jones of some of the rougher going inside.
Tommie McCune is another tall (6-8) forward, but his build and his game makes him more of a combination and wing player than a power player inside. He has the height to get to the basket in order to rebound and score, but he's a leaner, more athletic player who can defend on the perimeter and in open space much more efficiently that the other taller forwards in the lineup. He's the classic definition of a "length" player – a guy that can use his wingspan on both ends of the court.
One of the major deficiencies on West Virginia's 2010-11 team was he inability to score. WVU didn't have enough sharpshooters who could knock down jumpers consistently, and it didn't have guys who could penetrate and score over big defenders inside. McCune will be one of the candidates to fill the latter role this year, along with Keaton Miles, who's a bit shorter (6-6, 200 lbs.) but still fearless in taking the ball into the paint. He is probably the most offensive-minded of the newcomers, and along with McCune could help relieve some of the scoring woes that plagued West Virginia last year. It's difficult to predict how effective either will be early, but they will certainly get the chance to show what they can do early on.
One other factor could help McCune and Miles in this quest – the fact that Jones scores his points in an entirely different manner. Jones isn't an off-the-dribble scorer – as noted, he spots up for threes, finds holes in the defense for midrange shots, and gets a ton of points off the offensive glass. With defensive attention focused on the senior, players that can score and create off drives might have a few gaps to exploit.
The final forward, Aaron Brown, might best be called a role player, but putting that label on anyone isn't fair, because it conjures up images of scarce playing minutes and deficiencies in some areas of the game. 'Versatile' is probably the better word, because Brown can defend just about any position excluding the center spot, and has a reputation for toughness that he built over years of play in the Philadelphia area.
The question for Brown will be shooting – can he be consistent enough to be a perimeter scoring threat for the Mountaineers? He displayed stretches of such ability during his senior year, and if he can knock down shots at WVU, he's certainly going to play. Brown could also play at the two guard, and will likely do so at times this year, depending on defensive match-ups as well as his ability to drain outside jumpers.
Overall, West Virginia has a variety of players with which to man the forward positions this year. It has bigger guys who should be able to bang and help inside, it has athletic slashers, and it has some lockdown defenders. It also has the ace in the hole in Jones. As is the case with the center position, the key for this group will be its development over the season. Will Huggins be able to find enough parts to mix and match a successful group? Will one or two players emerge, or will needs be meet by platoons of players according to the situation? There are a lot of challenges to be met, and while there is talent on hand, it's mostly of the untested and unproven variety.