As the Mountaineers head into Saturday's game against Rutgers, head coach Bob Huggins is still looking for players who can provide consistent minutes and productivity for his team. The problem, one that has led to many of the team's overall struggles, is that several players have been just as up and down as the team as a whole. From the point to the post, most everyone outside of Kevin Jones has had games that ranged from outstanding to awful. That combination has produced WVU's current 12-5 record, and prevented the Mountaineers from holding a position at the top of the Bog East conference.
The latest player to ride the up and down roller coaster has been Dominique Rutledge. The 6-8, 240-pound forward has been pushed into more action due to the loss of center Pat Forsythe and defensive liabilities of Kevin Noreen, and like most of WVU's players this year, his response has had peaks and valleys.
Against Georgetown, Rutledge filled his role perfectly. He played very good post defense against two of the better bigs in the conference. He kept the ball from getting into the post easily, took a charge, and recorded a steal which led to two free throws from Tuck Bryant. He made his only shot from the floor and grabbed a pair of rebounds in nine solid minutes of action.
Afterward, Rutledge said his performance typified what he sees as his role this year.
"My role is to rebound, come in with my hard hat every game and be ready," he said. "Coach emphasized not letting players enter the ball into the post, and that we have to take that away."
The hope was that Rutledge's improvement in that game would lead to a solid 8-10 minutes per game, where he cold pride a break for Noreen and Deniz Kilicli and help shore up West Virginia's front line. However, in the very next game, he missed both of his shots and had just one rebound in four minutes of action in a loss to UConn. He also was flustered handling the ball, and caused a couple of breakdowns in the offense when he tried to get to the basket through a forest of defenders. While that was yet another lessons in his progression, it didn't do much to help lessen his disappointment.
"It has been frustrating," he said in describing his progress to date. "But it has been a great learning experience. In practice, I'm learning and working every day, learning how to play in the Big East, and my teammates are doing a good job in helping me stay focused. I'm just trying to fit in and do what the coach wants me to do. Hopefully I can continue to get better."
The most frustrating thing for Rutledge, and for his coaches, is that he's show that he can be productive on both ends of the floor. Against Baylor, he scored eight points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked two shots against fierce competition, so it's not as if he can't get the job done. It's been three weeks since that outing, however, and while he has had good showings since that time, he hasn't been able to sustain that level of performance. It's time, as Huggins has noted, for his young players to produce night in and night out.
If West Virginia is to make another appearance in the NCAA tournament, it needs to get more of these sorts of performances from Rutledge, or another one or two of its freshmen. These can't be the spotty, once-in-every-three-games showings, either. The Mountaineers need help for Jones and Kilicli up front, and must have better decision-making in the backcourt. With those, WVU will be playing on the big stage in March. If those don't materialize, the Mountaineers might be playing in one of the three-letter tournaments for the first time since 2007.