Observations, thoughts and notes from the opening sessions of West Virginia's men's and women's basketball practices.
First for the women's team:
It's obvious there's going to be a big change in style for the Mountaineers this year. The departure of Yolanda Paige and Sherell Sowho means Mike Carey can't ride his backcourt like he has the past four seasons. WVU is going to counter that loss with a strong front line that Carey says will be the deepest he has had during his West Virginia tenure.
Led by Olayinka Sanni, who has certainly spent a lot of time in the weight room and on the track this summer, WVU could roll out a tall and strong front line that includes Yelena Leuchanka, Chakia Cole and Meg Bulger, and that doesn't include some talented newcomers that we'll talk about in a bit. The Mountaineers should finally have the height, size and depth to compete with some of the big front lines in the Big East.
Junior college transfer Tameka Kelly, an All-American performer at Pensacola junior college, showed a number of nice moves in the lane and will compete for time up front. She has a nicely developed post game and showed good scoring prowess inside. Kelly, in addition to the previously mentioned quartet, give WVU a great mix up front.
Leuchanka has also been working out with gusto, and looks to be in very good shape. If her creaky knees can hold up, fans will finally see the full range of her abilities in her final season in a Mountaineer uniform.
Junior Meg Bulger is so good that she tends to get overlooked. She simply does everything well, and she does it so consistently that you come to expect it of her. She has played everywhere from the two guard to the five spot at WVU, but Carey would like to keep her at the two and three as much as possible. From there, she's best positioned to use all of her weapons.
Freshman point guard Sarah Bucar, a one-time teammate of Bulger's at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, looks to be the early favorite at point. She displays a veteran's calm in running the offense in drills, and her basketball knowledge and feel for the game look to be very good.
One other newcomer who grabbed attention is Britney Davis-White, who is also a juco transfer. Davis-White, who played at Midland junior college, has drawn early notice for her aggressive drives to the hoop and scoring ability. With WVU looking for another perimeter scorer to take the heat off Bulger, Davis-White has the opportunity to make an early impact with the Mountaineers.
Veteran observers of the team indicate that Carey has his deepest and most athletic squad yet. Finding guards is the key for this squad, but there's an obvious boost in terms of the athleticism of the squad.
Now, on to the men:
Darris Nichols hasn't been out of the weight room much this summer. He's noticeably bigger, especially through the arms and upper body. If his confidence has improved as much as his physical appearance, he's going to be a major factor in West Virginia's success this year.
But don't think that he's going to take over the starting role at point. J.D. Collins is one of the most underappreciated players to ever don a WVU jersey, but he is also one of the main reasons for West Virginia's success last year. Both Collins and Nichols are going to play, and fans could see them on the floor at the same time for longer stretches this year.
If anyone has any guaranteed healthy weight-gaining strategies, please forward them to Mike Gansey. No matter how he tries, putting on weight just doesn't seem to be something he can do. It doesn't seem to affect him, even with his whirlwind style of play, however.
I hope to hold down the hype on freshman forward Joe Alexander, who jumps like Gansey. However, Alexander is in the 6-7 or 6-8 range, so his leaps tend to put him somewhat higher over the basket than his veteran teammate. Alexander had two dunks during the pre-practice warmup period that drew oohs and ahhs. The first was a reverse windmill job from the left side, while the next was a Julius Erving-esque takeoff from the foul line.
Of course, Alexander will have a tough time earning major minutes, but he could provide good spot help, especially on the boards, with his quick leaping ability.
The coaches are working with Alex Ruoff to get a higher arc on his jumper. It's obvious he knows how to play the game, but he will probably experience all the struggles a typical freshman endures. After not playing much during an injury-filled senior season, it will likely take him some time to get back into game shape.
Kevin Johnston, WVU basketball equipmentmeister, made the following analysis: You know your team is popular when the announcement of its times in the mile run draws a big cheer from the crowd.
With comments like that, K.J. might get his own column.
Jamie Smalligan is big. Just plain big. He's a legitimate seven-footer, and he has a nice shot on the perimeter. He should be able to provide some defensive help next year in the lane, and while he sits out this season he will provide good practice opposition for Kevin Pittsnogle and Rob Summers.
Basketball commitment Joe Mazzulla was in for the weekend. He, his father and his cousin drove down to watch practice and catch the WVU-Louisville football game. Mazzulla watched practice drills intently for the entire Friday night session.
Kevin Pittsnogle has a new batch of tattoos, including one on his left elbow that had to be pretty painful. We estimated he has at least $2,000 worth of ink on him now.
Also, this just in. KP can shoot. I mean, really shoot. During closeout drills, he rained jumpers from all ranges and all areas of the court, and most of the drops found the bucket. He probably hit about 80% of his shots during one five-minute stretch of drills, and they weren't uncontested either.
The men's practice was smooth as silk, mostly because there were only three newcomers on the floor (Alexander, Ruoff and walkon Josh Sowards). With so many veterans going through the paces, it was almost like having 10 or 11 coaches on the floor. Players like Mike Gansey, Joe Herber and Collins were directing their new teammates and correcting mistakes even before the coaches could do so. This teaching process is very important, because next year it will be back to the basics as half of the roster departs.
Frank Young is another player that has gained size and strength. His upper body is more developed, and he moved through some lengthy drills with relative ease.