Inside Out

Before the season, just about every observer of the Mountaineer program shared a common opinion about Kevin Pittsnogle. "He has to develop his inside game for the Mountaineers to have a chance," went the common refrain.

Of course, major improvements in such an area cover a lot of ground, and small gains aren't often noticed. Although the Martinsburg, W. Va. native unleashed an improved version of his jump hook and showed a few moves in the lane, it wasn't the quantum leap that many, quite unfairly expected. However, those with more basketball knowledge than that gleaned from Billy Packer or Dick Vitale did see the building blocks of progress, and they more they watched, the more they liked.

Do I include myself in that latter group? Heck yes. Although Pittsnogle didn't, and won't, turn into the next coming of Emeka Okafor in the lane, encouraging signs were seen. The stringing together of more than one move in the post. The occasional challenging of a shot, rather than taking a charge, defensively. More free throws earned. And as November wound into December and the January, the difference in the 2005 and 2006 models of the illustrated one are easy to see.

If it hadn't been apparent before, then it was certainly on display in WVU's 68-61 win over Georgetown on Saturday at the Coliseum. Facing a front line of long, athletic defenders that stand 6-9, 6-9 and 7-2, Pittsnogle put on what may have been the finest interior performance of his career against top-flight competition.

After struggling through a first half in which he missed four of his six three-point tries, the still-improving senior went into the lane to challenge the Georgetown giants head on. The results? Four for four from the floor, another 4-5 from the free throw line, and a total of nine rebounds in 39 minutes for the big fella, who certainly surprised the Hoya defense with his willingness to attack the hoop.

"I am trying not to shy away from contact," said Pittsnogle, who has shown the tendency to float away from the hoop on shots inside. "Instead of shooting fadeaway jumpers, I'm trying to get inside and draw a foul here and there and get to the basket."

Against the Hoyas, Pittsnogle displayed his hard-earned new skills at one key juncture that put the Mountaineers in control. Leading 49-42, Pittsnogle screened for teammate Mike Gansey, then rolled to the hoop. Gansey flipped the ball to Pittsnogle, who, in past similar situations, might have pump faked or hesitated before going to the basket. This time, he took the ball up strongly to the hoop, was fouled by Darrel Owens, but still put the ball in the hoop and converted the ensuing free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play. The sequence put the Mountaineers up by ten with just under six minutes to go, and seemed to take a good bit of wind out of the Hoyas' sails. When Frank Young and Pittsnogle repeated the maneuver two minutes later, it was clear that an unexpected new force was the king of the paint on this night.

"We took it at them as much as we could," Pittsnogle said afterward. "We're not exactly a power team, and we're trying to work it inside, and the more we can get it inside the more open shots we'll get outside."

That logical next sequence paid big dividends after a poor opening shooting half in which the Mountaineer made just nine of 31 shots. With the outside game not going, Pittsnogle began to spearhead an inside game that, in turn, got more open looks for players on the perimeter. And when Frank Young and Patrick Beilein took advantage to knock down several second half bombs, the Mountaineers found a path to victory that was a bit easier than anticipated.

Of course, Pittsnogle has morphed into the second coming of Wes Unseld and Bill Russell just year. He still has a lot of work to do as he continues to upgrade his power game, but it's easy to see that he's come a long way to date.

"I never played inside in high school, and I have really only been playing inside for about four years," he explained. "I do think I am getting better as I go along. I think I am getting a little quicker [defensively] and staying in front of my man. I have been concentrating on shuffling, moving my feet and staying in front. That's another thing I think I have gotten better at since last year."

Now that he's made those improvements, however, there haven't been many words of praise for the in-state hero. Part of that is due to the fact that his offensive game gets so much attention, and part because shots are three-pointers are more glamorous than bodying up an opposing post player or redirecting a drive away from the basket. However, with all the preseason noise directed at WVU's anticipated defensive woes inside, there should be some attendant praise for the efforts he has put forth. To date, he is averaging 6.1 rebounds per game (up from a career average of 4.0) and has nearly equaled his blocked shot totals of the past two seasons (15 and 16), with 14. He is also on pace to reach a career high in free throw attempts, needing just 26 to set a new personal mark there. All of those numbers demonstrate the results form the hard work he has put in to improve his interior game.

So, consider this the bouquet for a job well done to date. It Pittsnogle had remained camped on the perimeter this year, the Mountaineers likely wouldn't be enjoying the 11-3 mark they have right now. And if the sharp-shooting senior continues to improve at the pace he has so far, that won-loss record could shine even brighter by season's end.

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