Some of the obvious items, such as West Virginia's increased athleticism and Da'Sean Butler's early ascnedancy, have already been discussed, so I'll try to skip those and point out some things that haven't been talked about as much. Also, I realize that the level of competition hasn't been the greatest, so I am trying to evaluate WVU on its own merits.
The play of Rob Summers, which was often criticized last year, has been an important part of WVU's early success. Summers is certainly not going to be a scoring machine, but he has taken to his role, which includes rebounding, defense and generally scrappy play, with efficiency. Summers is tied for the team lead in rebounding (5.3 per game) while playing fewer minutes than either Da'Sean Butler or Frank Young, who are the other two-thirds of the leading board trio. He also leads the team in blocked shots with eight (although that number is, in reality, ten or higher, as a couple of his rejections were missed in the first two games). He has also taken charges, showed a good understanding of when to challenge shots and when to play for the rebound, and been excellent at keeping balls alive on the offensive end with tip outs and scramble plays.
That's not to say that Summers has totally erased his limitations. He will struggle to guard quicker centers in space, and will be at a disadvantage when facing stronger players in the post. However, his improvement has certainly been noticeable, and provides a direct "in your face" to those who ripped him for his play last year.
A second item that jumps out is West Virginia's ability to rebound as a team. As knowledgeable fans realize, the 1-3-1 zone makes it more difficult to rebound, but WVU goes with that approach because it causes some unique problems for foes, and also maximizes the defensive skills it does possess. In order to rebound effectively out of the 1-3-1, a team effort is required. Wing players, which include the two and the three, must box out bigger foes on the blocks. The point guard must likewise board much more than in a standard defense. And the player at the top of the 1-3-1 must hustle back down the lane and find a gap to the backboard – not unlike an offensive player following his own shot.
To date, West Virginia has been improved in this area as well. Five players (Summers, Butler, Young, Joe Alexander and Jamie Smalligan) are already in double digits in rebounding, with Alex Ruoff just out of the group with nine. Point guards Darris Nichols and Joe Mazzulla also aren't afraid to stick their noses in with the big boys, and as a result WVU is giving up far fewer second and third chances than it did a year ago.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the Mountaineers are going to dominate their foes on the glass. West Virginia's three-point attack, combined with its defensive schemes and lack of bulk, will cause rebounding deficits over the long haul. (WVU currently holds a 107-106 rebounding lead over its first three opponents.) However, the Mountaineers do appear more equipped to keep that margin to a manageable level (say, five per game) than they were in past seasons.
Free throw shooting has been a glaring deficiency, especially in the last game when the Mountaineers went 10-28. WVU has been a good shooting team from the line over the past couple of years, but this season is going to be a struggle. Unfortunately, free throws will be a bigger part of WVU's game this year, as it has more players that can, and will, go to the basket and draw fouls. Butler, Alexander, Nichols and Mazzulla are all willing and capable of driving it to the hoop, and Smalligan's post game will yield more free throw attempts than any of WVU's centers in the Beilein era. That won't help, however, unless the Mountaineers are able to knock them down.
Beilein noted that this is the first time many of WVU's players have been under the lights in taking free throws, and that he does expect the percentages to improve over time. However, he also admits that West Virginia won't be leading the league in free throw shooting – a hint that there probably won't be many Mountaineers challenging the 80% mark this year. Still, Smalligan, Nichols, Mazzulla and Bawinkel have solid shooting strokes, and should bump their averages up appreciably. And if Summers (3-4 through the first three games) can stay around the 70% mark, West Virginia could be o.k. in this department.
Defensively, WVU will still rely on its 1-3-1, which has been made stronger in some respects due to the length and athleticism it can deploy on the wings. However, one key difference in this year's team is the fact that it will be capable of playing man-to-man at times – at least much more than it has over the last four years.
The Mountaineers aren't going to be a swarming man team that shuts down foes. However, it will be able to play man with certain lineups on the floor (look for Butler to spearhead this defense) and provide a vastly different look than the 1-3-1. Over the past couple of years, Beilein has had to deploy the 2-3 as his alternate defense, and while that certainly wasn't a bad move, it was still just another zone. With players capable of staying in front of foes in the open floor, West Virginia should be able to play man for short stretches, or, as it has done so far, play the 1-3-1 after making shots and the man after misses.
There's still a lot to learn defensively for WVU. The Mountaineers are giving up the baseline too much in the 1-3-1, and while they are hustling, aren't the best at closing out on shooters after skip passes across the defense. Switches while playing man aren't as smooth as the coaching staff would like, either. However, as in many other areas, the talent is there for West Virginia to improve. It's just a question of how long it will take to mature.
While this certainly is a Beilein team, fans are (or should) notice some differences this year. WVU will run more – as much as its defensive rebounding permits. It will make more steals on the perimeter, but probably won't have as many on the inside. It won't shoot as well from the outside, but again, could make up for it with penetration and close in shots. In the end, the question to be answered is this: Will the strengths of this team, and the improvements it will make in certain areas, be enough to offset the losses in others? Here are a few of those to watch:
All these factors, and more, should make for a very interesting season. However, don't make the mistake of thinking that the big games on this year's schedule come when Connecticut, Villanova, Pitt, UCLA and Cincinnati come to town. In a way, the biggest games are the next eight on the schedule. It's during this time that WVU will, as Beilein said, begin to find out what its team will be like this year. It will also, most likely, determine West Virginia's chances for postseason play. If the Mountaineers can win five of these next eight contests, it would put itself in position for an NIT bid. I realize that's a long way off, and that a lot has to happen to get there, but WVU must take advantage of some winnable games early in the season, and perhaps pull off an upset or two, in order to make it a reality.