Yearling's Progress

Just a couple of brief minutes of conversation with sophomore forward Joe Alexander is enough to see the drastic difference in the high-flying forward's demeanor over the past several months.

When last seen in public as part of the Mountaineer basketball program, Alexander was, at best, hanging around the fringes. After getting a bit of playing time early in the 2005-06 season, it became obvious that the extremely athletic, but just as equally raw forward wasn't going to be a big part of the WVU rotation. Contributing to that, of course, was the fact that the Mountaineers were a senior-dominated club last year. However, Alexander's lack of knowledge of the game, especially of the many fine points prized by head coach John Beilein, also kept him languishing on the bench. His frustration with that state of affairs was apparent in his brief stints on the court, when he tried to do to much and usually wound up with a turnover or other negative play, rather than the big dunk or skying rebound he was seeking. Thus, Alexander didn't appear to be the happiest of campers during his freshman campaign.

One of the late Al McGuire's favorite bromides was, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores." That could be the case for Alexander, whose increased maturity is evident in several ways. During interviews, the lean leaper now makes eye contact with his questioners and speaks with some thought behind his words. He appears to understand his role on the team, and seems to be much more relaxed than he was a season ago. Of course, with a potential starting slot dangling as a prize, the situation is looking much better for the player who admits that getting on the court is a big factor in his progress. Key in that regard was a summer basketball tour of China, which he made in the company of center Jamie Smalligan.

"I'd say I learned to be more confident in my game, and obviously I can use that here," said Alexander of the lessons he received on the tour. "Basically I got a chance to practice everything Coach Beilein has taught me. I got to play every game, and that helped a lot. It definitely helped me get in a groove. The first couple of games I was a little rusty, but by the seventh or eighth game I felt much better. I feel as good as I ever have."

Of course, playing in an exhibition tour is one thing – the rugged Big East is another. Alexander certainly has a number of lessons to learn while he competes for a bigger role on the 2006-07 version of the Mountaineers. However, this year he at least seems much better prepared to take on that challenge.

"I feel like I am much more in a leadership role this year," said Alexander, even though he is still just a sophomore. "With so many younger guys this year, me and Alex Ruoff and Josh Sowards are considered veterans, at least a little bit. I think growing up a year in the system has helped me a lot."

Alexander actually has a number of hurdles to overcome as he strives to become one of the linchpins of this year's squad. He'll undoubtedly face adversity at several points through the season, and the manner in which he handles it will have a big impact on his growth in the program. He also will be trying to learn two different positions in order to help the young Mountaineers be more flexible in terms of personnel. Last season he was strictly a four, and at times he appeared lost offensively. This year, he'll also get some time at the five as an alternative to the bigger, but slower, duo of Jamie Smalligan and Rob Summers. Learning one position in the Beilein offense is tough enough – learning two is like a full slate of graduate-level courses. Alexander, however, doesn't look at it in those terms – he is focused on helping West Virginia improve in a statistic that has been a sore point over the past few years.

"I hope to bring a lot of rebounds," said Alexander with a laugh, as he recalled all the criticism the team has received for its deficiency in snaring caroms. "Other than that, I just want to be a complete player this year, and do whatever Coach Beilein needs me to do. I have no problem with the five. Obviously I have to play bigger than I am. I have to bang around with them and try to get stronger during the year. But I think I can compete with them because I am quicker than they are, so I don't think it will be a problem."

The quick-jumping sophomore certainly exhibits that ability in practice, where he seems to get off the ground more quickly and reach higher levels than just about any of his teammates. The hope is that Alexander will be able to beat foes to some of the "50-50" balls that typically went to opponents over the past couple of years.

Wherever Alexander lines up, it's clear he will have to be a productive member of the West Virginia lineup if the Mountaineers are to entertain any notions of postseason play. More athleticism, especially from the incoming freshmen, might help fill a few of the holes caused by the graduation of last year's seniors, but the fortunes of this year's squad will likely rest on the small core of returnees, including Alexander, that will be counted on to lead the Mountaineers in the early going. His response to those challenges will be one of the biggest items to bear watching during the upcoming season.

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