Pepper, who waited until the end of the semester before announcing his intention to transfer, would have competed for minutes at the two guard and possibly at the small forward position for WVU, and there's no doubt that his absence will shake up the competition. His absence won't leave the Mountaineers destitute, but just as we've discussed in our two previous positional breakdowns, the Mountaineers will now have one player holding the vast majority of playing experience at guard, joined by a handful of newcomers.
The holdover, of course, is Truck Bryant, a player whose reputation for out-of-control forays into the lane has overshadowed his many talents. There's no doubt that Bryant has to make better decisions on when to attack the basket and when to pull up or dish the ball off, but he also gets some unfair criticism in that area of his game. Bryant can't simply stand outside and launch jumpers – he needs to put the ball on the floor and put pressure on the defense. When any player does that, the occasional turnover is going to result. What he will have to do this year is read the defense better and not try to force shots over or around big defenders. When those opposing forwards or centers come his way, he needs to find teammates, or draw contact, so he can put his career 78% free throw percentage to work. He can't just barge into players and throw the ball up, however -- that's a tactic that he employed at times last year, and officials seemed to grow more reluctant to call fouls in those situations as the season wound down.
There's a groundswell of opinion that incoming freshman Jabarie Hinds will immediately displace Bryant at the point guard position, but while that possibility does exist, it's not a foregone conclusion. Hinds is an excellent playmaker who uses great quickness and ballhandling ability to set up teammates and get to the basket, but at six feet and 160 pounds, he will face a physical challenge the likes of which he hasn't seen in high school or AAU ball. He certainly has the ability to be an excellent point in the Big East, but is that going to be the case from day one? In any event, he's probably not going to play 35+ minutes per game right off the bat, so West Virginia will need another point the help carry the load. It could be Bryant, but it also could be another freshman guard who doesn't have the reputation of Hinds.
That player is Gary Browne, a late signee from Puerto Rico by way of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla. Browne signed with West Virginia during the late (regular) period in April, and he's something of an unknown, even though he had a stint on the Puerto Rican national team. Browne is also an accomplished ballhandler, and is built a bit more strongly than Hinds, so he could be better equipped early on to stand up to the rigors of the Big East.
The good news in all of this is that WVU does have some options at the point, even if two of them are true freshmen. If Hinds and Browne are both ready to play, Bryant would be freed up to play some at the two spot, and perhaps remove some of the pressure to create off the dribble. If one or both aren't ready early on, Bryant can stay at the position he has played for much of his WVU career.
Other than Bryant, the two spot is now a battle for walk-ons. Aric Dickerson, who received an early bid to West Virginia as a preferred walk-on, and Paul Herbert Williamson, who spurned a Marshall invite to test his talent at WVU, will probably get more attention than the typical non-scholarship player during the preseason. Both will try to fill the outside shooting and scoring role for West Virginia, which remains a glaring need for the Mountaineers. Bryant made just 32.3% of this 3-pointers for West Virginia in 2010-11, but that pedestrian mark puts him at the head of the team's returnees in that category. Will either Dickerson or Williamson be able to at least fill the role that Jonnie West did a year ago? Asking a freshman walk-on to replace an experienced senior in any role is a big stretch, but one of the two could end up playing five or six minutes per game, especially if Bryant, Hinds and Browne have problems from long range.
With such a young crew, and with an absence of scholarship players with the attributes of a conventional two guard, look for Huggins and WVU to again be creative in filling out the lineup this year. Bryant could team with one of the other points to make up the backcourt, but the Mountaineers could also go with more of a one-guard, three-forward lineup this fall. West Virginia has more bodies at forward and center than it does at guard this year, so it won't be a surprise to see more of those players on the court.
Those decisions, however, will depend mostly on the progression and acclimation of the newcomers on the team. Which players will adjust to college the quickest? Which ones will meet Huggins' exacting standards of defense? There are several different methods by which the veteran head coach can fill out his rotation this year, but there's no way to know yet which one of those it will be. This year, more than any in recent memory, preseason practices and December games will be crucial in building the lineup card for the Big East season.