Instead of a simple rundown of each player, we'll take a look at some of the expectations for the 2011-12 squad, and how well WVU has fared in meeting them. We'll also sum up with a look ahead, and another glimpse in the crystal ball for a glimmer of the ultimate goal – an NCAA bid.
After 12 games West Virginia stands with a 9-3 mark – a record that should satisfy all but the most unreasonable of observers. Certainly, the Mountaineers let a winnable game against Baylor slip away, but they also could have lost close games against Kansas State and Missouri State, so those ups and downs have evened out a bit, as they often tend to do, over the long haul.
Youth and inexperience were the watchwords for this team coming in to the season, and a challenging November and December schedule didn't give those young players a lot of time to develop. The prime example has been in the backcourt, where Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne played very well in the early going, then began struggling as the competition heated up and the frequency of games began increasing. As that duo has had ups and downs, so too have other freshmen. Injuries have also reared their head, and could be a major factor as the calendar turns to 2012. Despite all those setbacks and hurdles however, the team still holds a .750 winning percentage against a schedule currently ranked as #27 in the nation by the RPI – a figure that will likely only go up as Big East play ensues. Anyone that's not happy with the results so far simply had unrealistic expectations. Certainly WVU could have been 11-1 at this point, had it played better down the stretch against Kent State and not given away the Baylor game. But it also could have easily been 7-5, a fact that is easy to overlook when counting up the "shouldas, couldas and wouldas".
Ask Bob Huggins and the team bout their achievements to date, and they'll likely point out mistakes and lost opportunities, and focus on the future. That's good, because that's where their attention should be. But from this vantage point, WVU has had a very good season to date, and deserves credit for racking up nine wins while building a team around just three returning veterans.
Coming in to the year, shooting was a major concern. Truck Bryant, who averaged just 35.9% shooting from the field for his career, was viewed as the threat from long range, so scoring was again a perceived trouble spot for Huggins' squad. However, several factors have served to answer those questions.
First, Bryant has inched up his shooting. While still not a guaranteed bet, he's hitting a career best of 39.7% from the field and making enough from beyond the arc (35.1%) to force defenders to cover him from afar. Shot selection is still an issue at times, but Bryant has provided WVU with a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor.
Second has been WVU's ability to score inside – something it was unable to do consistently over the past few seasons. Kevin Jones has been [pick your adjective for awesome here] from the inside and mid-range. He is shooting 67% from inside the three-point line, and hasn't been slowed by anything other than occasional foul trouble. Deniz Kilicli has also been dominant at times, hitting 50% from close range.
Third has been the unexpected contributions of Aaron Brown and Paul Williamson. Brown, viewed as a defender by most, rode hours of summer work on his jump shot to become one the team's two marksmen, hitting 48% of his threes. Williamson, already the team's designated shooter, has made seven of 10 from beyond the arc. Together, they have provided WVU with outside scoring threats to complement the inside play of Kilicli and Jones.
Finally, West Virginia has been able to get some easier scores in transition, and those hoops have made the difference between averaging in the low 60s to the current scoring rate 77.2 points per outing. Add them all up, and these factors have alleviated many of the scoring concerns that were rife in preseason prognostications.
At the outset, we noted that we weren't going to comment on individual players, but ignoring Jones would be like going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. The senior has been nothing short of outstanding for WVU this year, averaging 21 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, both the best among Big East players to date.
Stats don't tell the whole story for Jones, however. He has blossomed as a leader this year, and is getting every single bit of production out of his talent that he can. Players like Jones are the ones at the top of my personal favorites at WVU – guys that are truly selfless, work hard and get the most out of their abilities. Jones, like another all-time favorite of mine, Joe Herber, isn't the most physically gifted player ever at WVU, but that doesn't stop him. He simply does everything right about 99.9% of the time and will leave as West Virginia's most dominant offensive rebounder ever.
This is the biggest trouble area leading into the Big East season. Every college player, upon campus arrival, believes he knows how to play defense. About 15 minutes into his first practice under Huggins, he realizes he doesn't know anything at all. At that point, the battle is joined – will the player submit to the teaching, hectoring and cajoling that will make him a good defender, or will he give up? For most under Huggins, the answer is the former, but there are some that never learn the lesson and either ride the bench for their career or leave.
That process is underway right now for the vast majority of West Virginia's roster. We're not suggesting in any way that anyone is on the verge of hanging it up – only that the newcomers are still in the early stages of learning how to play defense. That process has been a struggle – so much so that WVU has been limited to straight man-to-man for much of the year, with the occasional 1-3-1 thrown in at the end of games. The point-drop, along with other zone defenses, just haven't gotten enough practice time to be viable over more than a couple of possessions, because to introduce even more defenses might only slow the adoption pace of all the man-to-man principles still to be learned.
If we were grading each of these areas, defense might best receive an incomplete. However, the equivalent of mid-terms are coming up, and West Virginia simply has to get better at defending on the ball and covering the high ball screen, otherwise its defensive points per game average is going to go up in a hurry.
THE ROAD AHEAD
West Virginia has at least 20 games to play this year – 18 in the league, the wildly out-of-place game against Marshall, and its first round contest in the Big East tournament. After that, games will be of the earned variety, depending on advancement in the league and post season tournaments.
What will it take for the Mountaineers to get to the NCAA? Twenty total wins, while not the magic mark it used to be, should surely be enough to get an at-large bid. That's not a foregone conclusion, but it is achievable. While the Big East is again ridiculously strong at the top, it might not be quite as tough in the middle as it was in recent seasons. Still, counting automatic wins in the Big East is about as sure as predicting Russian politics, so putting WVU among those solidly in the tournament at this point is a stretch.
One of the keys will be to avoid RPI-sucking "bad losses" the rest of the way. Marshall, typically an RPI-killer, won't have that stigma this year, so the Mountaineers will only have to worry about those teams at the bottom of its own league. Avoiding losses to squads such as St. John's, Rutgers, Providence, USF, and DePaul, and knocking off contenders for other mid-pack positions (Villanova is the first of several) could be enough to put the Mountaineers in the Big Dance.