Beilein Era, Part II Begins

West Virginia opened men's basketball practice this past weekend, and with a handful of workouts in the books we offer a compendium of thoughts, notes and observations as the second act of the John Beilein era begins at West Virginia.

The caveat, here, of course, is that it's still very early. Players have plenty of time to improve – a process that will continue over the next few years for the freshmen on this team. A player that doesn't appear in the mix right now could well be an important cog by the time the Big East season starts.

Although he wouldn't identify the player, Beilein hinted broadly that some of the incoming freshmen would compete early for playing time, if not a starting position.

"Some of these players look me in the eye and say, ‘Bring it on," Beilein said before the start of practice. "I won't tell you which freshmen have stood out, but if you watch it won't take you long to figure it out."

Beilein was right, because it was clear by the time the second drill began that Da'Sean Butler is a different sort of cat. While many of the incoming freshmen figure to contribute this year, Butler's athleticism, quickness, grace and quick shot combine to put him at the head of the class, at least in the early going. While we certainly aren't going to anoint him as a great player just yet, he certainly has all the tools to be one at some point during his career.

Butler's one drawback is strength, or the lack thereof. He had never touched a weight before coming to West Virginia, and is admittedly behind in that department. He has the build of a young Tyrone Sally, and some of his moves with the ball are a bit reminiscent of the lanky ex-Mountaineer star.

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Point guard Joe Mazzulla has picked up a lot of basketball knowledge during his career, and though he, like all the freshmen, will struggle many times during his freshman season, he obviously has a good deal of court sense. In continuous fast break drills (where three players on offense go in transition against two on defense, with a third defender chasing to catch up). Mazzulla continually made good decisions with the ball, either attacking the hoop or drawing the defense for a dish to a teammate. Mazzulla and Darris Nichols should make an excellent tandem at the point, and the former also has the build to stand up to some of the pounding the point guard has to take at the bottom of WVU's 1-3-1 defense.

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Center, on the other hand, is still something of a mystery. Jamie Smalligan shoots well from the perimeter, and although he's not going to run off screens and drain fadeaway threes ala Kevin Pittsnogle, teams will have to guard him beyond the line. Rob Summers still appears rushed and hurried when he gets the ball on offense, and thus loses some chances to score. The question for both might be defensive movement and quickness, which West Virginia will have to rely on to take scoring chances away from opponents.

The wildcard at center could be Joe Alexander, who had an excellent trip to China with a touring team this summer. On the trip, Alexander got his first extended action in two years, and appears to be much more relaxed, mature and confident as he enters his second year.

In one drill, centers take an entry pass, burst by two defenders with blocking pads (who dish out hearty whacks) and go to the basket for a shot. Even if the shot goes in, the center grabs the ball and goes back up again to score. Several times in this drill, Alexander knifed through the defenders, scored, then grabbed the ball and bounded back up high for a dunk on the second shot.

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The graduation of the senior Fab Five might have been the best thing to happen to Frank Young. One always got the sense that Young might have deferred to last year's senior class on occasion, which might have made him a bit tentative on the court.

In the opening sessions, Young appeared very relaxed and confident. He put on an excellent shooting display during the Friday session, draining jumper after jumper from beyond the arc in various drills.

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It can't be said that Beilein and his staff aren't concerned about rebounding. Following a year in which his team again came up short on the glass, Beilein invested in a new piece of equipment that looks like something from Torquemada's chamber. The apparatus features two big pads extending about four feet out from either side of a small rack that holds a ball about 11 feet off the ground. A player using the machine runs and puts his body (none too gently) one of the pads, which is designed to give a couple of feet when hit. The player then jumps to take a basketball off the rack, completing the process of boxing out, then grabbing a rebound. It looks like something Bill Kirelawich or Rick Trickett might use on the football practice field, but hopefully it will reinforce the idea of putting bodies on opponents when a shot goes up.

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Jonnie West and Jacob Green will almost certainly redshirt this year. Both need at least a year of strength and conditioning work before they would have a chance to compete in the Big East. West spent much of the initial practice session working on conditioning.

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While WVU certainly has more athletic ability on this team than any other under Beilein, that doesn't necessarily mean things will be great right off the bat. There's obviously a great deal of learning to be done. The coaching staff is incorporating parts of the offense into drills (for example, during a three-on-three drill, the initial positions and cuts of a couple of staples of the WVU offense were taught), but it's a long way from that to executing the entire sequence, with its requisite reads, in a game. Puzzled looks and blank stares weren't rare when initial instructions were given – the same way it was five years ago during Beilein's initial season at the helm.

Fans will need to remember that there will be a number of growing pains for this team – and likely some ugly losses along the way.

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The way-too-early guess at a starting five: Nichols, Alex Ruoff, Butler, Young and either Smalligan or Alexander. Behind that group, there's lots of playing time available. Don't be surprised to see WVU go ten or 11 deep during the early part of the season.


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