State of the Program

Sunday night's men's basketball exhibition against Fairmont State left a number of impressions on the minds of the BlueGoldNews.com staff. Herewith is a compendium of thoughts, observations and notes from WVU's easier-than-expected 81-54 win.

West Virginia ran a man-to-man defense for the entire first half before mixing in the 1-3-1 in the second. (WVU played man on missed shots and the 1-3-1 on makes and out of bounds situations.) The early returns are that WVU does have some players, like Darris Nichols, Joe Mazzulla, Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith that can play man. The jury is certainly still out on several others, notably centers Rob Summers and Jamie Smalligan. Both had problems with Fairmont State's smaller, quicker front line players.

However, that doesn't mean man-to-man won't be a part of WVU's defensive arsenal. Head coach John Beilein said afterward he wanted to get a good deal of man to man on tape for teaching and evaluation purposes.

Fairmont State did a good job of screening Mountaineer defenders to free themselves for open shots, so it's apparent that a lot of work needs to be done before WVU can deploy the man against some of the heavyweights on its schedule. However, the talent is there to put a team of man-to-man defenders on the floor – something that wasn't present a year ago.

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We'll have more on the rotation later, but it's pretty clear for now that Nichols, Alex Ruoff, Frank Young and Joe Alexander will man the one through the four spots. Smalligan and Summers are still in a battle for the five position, and that decision won't be made until later this week. Beilein noted that the nod would probably go to Summers if the two players were close.

In my evaluation, Smalligan probably did enough to earn the starting nod. He's more comfortable with the ball in the post than Summers, and shoots a bit better. While neither is going to be an intimidating defensive presence, Smalligan does have an advantage in physical size that could help on the boards. Jamie also displayed a nice jump hook at the end of a back down move in the second half, and if he could match his game totals of 11 points and five rebounds throughout the season, it would be a huge boost to the WVU offense. That's probably a bit too much to expect, however.

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This just in – Da'Sean Butler can play. He'll fill the sixth man role for WVU early on, but certainly has the talent level to be considered a starter. He has picked up the West Virginia system as well as any freshmen since Joe Herber, Patrick Beilein and J.D. Collins, and is an athletic wing presence that can operate within the system while also creating off the dribble. He had 11 points in 17 minutes, and don't be surprised to see him logging just as many minutes as the starters as the season progresses.

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Joe Alexander's explosive game will certainly draw a lot of praise, and deservedly so. However, he's still raw, especially on the defensive end. However, he, along with Butler and Wellington Smith, should help WVU on the boards, as they will at times simply outjump opponents for rebounds. If Joe continues to progress at the rate he has over the past offseason, he will end up being an excellent player for the Mountaineers. Keep in mind, however, that he, like just about everyone on this team, is still a work in progress.

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O.K., a bit more on the rotation. In addition to the six already mentioned, it looks as if Butler, Wellington Smith and Joe Mazzulla will be the other three players in Beilein's preferred top eight. Ooops, did we say eight? That's nine, and Devan Bawinkel is also getting a look, but he might be a step behind the others. There's also Cam Thoroughman, who Beilein admits is the subject of a search for a position and minutes.

With Beilein favoring an eight-man rotation, there is still a lot of jockeying for position before any such narrowed lineup is identified. The suspicion is here that there will be a lot of early games where ten players get double-digit minutes, and that such an shortening of the bench won't occur at least until the conference schedule rolls around.

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It was interesting to see Joe Mazzulla as the leader of WVU's pre-game huddle. Conventional wisdom would put a senior or other experienced leader in that spot, but if we have learned anything about John Beilein's system, it's that it is not conventional. Seldom used backup Juice Price was the leader in that spot during his Mountaineer career, so it's interesting to see Mazzulla already taking on the role of "holler guy".

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Although they could have played and still redshirted, freshmen Jonnie West and Jacob Green did not play in the game. That pair, along with sophomore Josh Sowards, will redshirt this year.

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Although Darris Nichols certainly appeared at ease in running the team (nine assists, one turnover) he is still not attacking the basket with the aggressiveness WVU will need to create scoring chances. Part of that was due to FSU's zone defense, which didn't allow for much room in the lane, but there were times when Nichols didn't take advantage of avenues that presented themselves. On the plus side, he did take three-pointers that were available, and canned three of his four attempts.

FSU was also incapable of putting any pressure on WVU's ballhandlers on the perimeter, so the jury is still out on how well the Mountaineers can protect the ball against pressure defenses.

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West Virginia's +14 rebounding margin allowed it to get into transition and score several hoops before the Falcon defense could get back. That number will certainly shrink against bigger and more athletic foes, but it did show the Mountaineers' commitment to pushing the ball up the floor. The deeper rotation could also allow WVU to play at a faster pace over longer stretches – provided it can snare the defensive rebounds necessary to fuel the running game.

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To sum it up, there was a lot to be pleased with in the opener. That doesn't mean, however, that the Mountaineers won't take their lumps this year. There will be some ugly losses. As the coaching staff works to identify the best lineup, WVU could well drop some games that fans expect them to win, due to the names involved if nothing else. (By the way, don't include Montana in that crowd. Do some research, and you'll find the Grizzlies are loaded this year.)

However, the outlook certainly isn't all bad. West Virginia is several steps above the level it was when Joe Herber, Kevin Pittsnogle, J.D. Collins and company took the floor as freshmen. Its improved athleticism will allow it to compete on the boards, and hopefully defensively, better in certain situations. The building blocks are there to begin the climb back to the upper echelon of the conference. It's just not going to happen overnight, or as quickly as many may want.

Although it's way too early to offer meaningful season outlooks, this team should be one that improves greatly from game one to game 29. Whether that shows in the record or not remains to be seen. If everything breaks right, 14 or 15 wins would be an outstanding achievement and result in an NIT bid. That's probably the top end for this team at this point, and falling short of that level certainly wouldn't mean the season was a failure.


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