Some Questions Answered; Others Remain

ORLANDO – West Virginia's basketball team answered a handful of questions at the Old Spice Classic, namely that it has found its rotation and has the ability – barring rookie-like mistakes and continued development – to play with major conference teams.

The Mountaineers, now 5-1 after winning two of three here over the last five days, have solidified their starting rotation of Darris Nichols at point, Alex Ruoff at shooting guard, Frank Young at swing and Joe Alexander at the four. Rob Summers started every game at center, but is still splitting time with Jamie Smalligan. Sixth man Da'Sean Butler's surge off the bench is too meaningful to be ignored, and Devan Bawinkel, Joe Mazzulla and Wellington Smith will the be the reserve role players.

Nichols proved primed for a solid junior season. He handled the distribution and scoring duties without fail, and is the lone player to lead West Virginia in points in more than one game this season, tallying 10-plus in each game here. He flashed the added aggressiveness needed, and provided, along with Young, the calming influence for which a young team aches. Young showed his scoring ability as well, and that he is still a true nuts and bolts player. He helped run the offense, shot efficiently for the most part, performed well on the boards and worked for loose balls and defensively. His near late steal in the championship loss to Arkansas was the heady play of an upperclassmen, Young jumping the inbounds and stripping the ball away before being whistled for a slight lean on the back, a call that was questionable.

Ruoff might be the Joe Herber of this team, albeit with better stat sheet numbers. He showed surprising innovation and athleticism on drives and led the Mountaineers in assists. His fit at shooting guard is fine in an offense that values ball distribution and can best utilize Ruoff's talents in a myriad of ways. His 360-degree spin to the basket for a score in the title game was a slight jaw-dropper, and his ability to finish near the hoop in traffic impressed. He has a chippy, cocky side that is needed. Butler is a known commodity now, sparking WVU with his play atop the 1-3-1 zone and his finishes inside when there was little else and Alexander again showcased his length, athletic ability and a short jumper from the baseline with which he can draw out defenders before dumping the ball inside or driving past.

There are problems, however. The Mountaineers still lack a viable big man inside who can at least limit foes. Summers was dominated inside by Arkansas and Smalligan appeared intimidated at the game's start, edging away from the basket on a reverse lay-up and not bodying up until the second half. Summers, the more physical of the two, also had a pair of late-game mistakes that were a major part of the lack of ability to tie the game. Down by 16, West Virginia rallied to within four with several defensive stops. It kept the ball in the perimeter, and did not allow the Razorbacks to dump or drive and kick for an open three, as had been the case early in the second half. But Summers' foul out front on a guard as the shot clock was running down was, at best, a sophomoric mistake. His lack of fight on a late loose ball was discouraging. Should he have come up with the ball – he is reads here he certainly should have – WVU surely would have had points, as Young was already up court for a run-out. It prompted a disparaging yell from head coach John Beilein, followed by calm teaching. It should, however, be a lesson unneeded for a player who has started 46 career collegiate games.

As decent as Summers was in the initial games against lesser foes, he showed against Arkansas that he is a player that is limited by his own self-doubts and lack of game feel and intelligence (shown by the foul), though one that will play hard and operate willingly within the offense. It's an aspect West Virginia must overcome this season as it continues to improve. Another problem was a couple of rushed shots toward the end of the finale'. WVU had come al the way back, yet abandoned its motion offense for a couple quick ‘hero' shots that missed. With the adrenaline is flowing when one's team is making a comeback, it's tempting to loose the control that enabled the rally in the first place. The Mountaineers need better poise there, and that will come with experience, something that – Beilein said of Arkansas' length and powerful inside game – the team cannot duplicate in practice.

This will likely be a better defensive team than last season's, and it will need to be. It can play decent man defense and its 1-3-1 will be effective. It can be exploited, like any defense, with the right movement and skill set. Major teams will have that formula, especially in the Big East, when strong, 7-0 centers are the norm and the lines routinely run 6-9 and 6-8 with the ability to jump and block shots. Part of that counteraction is a solid offense that melts the clock, and part is not being intimidated early and falling behind, which segues into needing a rally. West Virginia certainly took advantage of late chances and made stands. It could not, in the end, finish the rally because of a handful of miscues, like Bawinkel's gator arms on his jumper, Summers' foul and lack of corralling a loose ball, rushed shooting and some reliance on individual play.

West Virginia has 10 days in which to review film and work on what can be done in practice. But many of these things, like not following through on jumpers because of concern for another teams' inside range and late rushed shots stemming from lack of staying within the offense, were simply part of the developmental process that can only be done in games. The loss gets an ‘A' in its opportunity to teach the team. And, as Beilein notes, unlike in football, a loss will not destroy a season. Arkansas – which was the better team on a night in which it actually raised shooting averages of 48 percent from the field and 41 percent from behind the arc despite solid defense from WVU after a hesitant first five minutes – could be a major teaching tool, and it should certainly help West Virginia in its preparation for North Carolina State.

The Mountaineers now have an idea of who and what they are, namely a squad with not as much offensive punch but better defensive prowess and one that has more athletes but not as good of shooters. Once the group blends a bit more, it should compete well. The stretches of bad shooting will not be as costly because of its defense and offensive control, but losing streaks are almost imminent with a team of seven freshmen. If Beilein can continue to develop the team as well as he has thus far, it will play very well in the vast majority of games, forcing other foes to beat it instead of beating itself, which happened at times in the Old Spice championship game. It reads here the excitement should be high, both to watch the team as it matures in play and to see if it can overcome and hide some match-up shortcomings, the mark of adaptability and intelligence. For this year, as in many, it is indeed the journey that should be respected.

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