First, on a coldly analytical level, WVU wouldn't be in the position to fill out its card for the Big Dance if it hadn't won 16 games so far. Those games certainly meant something at the time they were played, and they hold just as much importance now. If WVU goes 4-5 in its last nine regular season games, wins one in the Big East tournament and gets a bid, was it those latter wins that made the difference? Those victories in November and December were just as important, even if they didn't yield as many RPI points. As Coach Beilein likes to say, they are all important.
The wins over Connecticut and Villanova at the start of the league season were especially big. While the Huskies certainly aren't as good as they typically are, WVU didn't know that at the time. That win was just as, if not more, important from a mental aspect as it was from an RPI standpoint. It gave the Mountaineers confidence, showed them they could compete against the top programs in the league, and likely paved the way for the win over Villanova three nights later. I know that West Virginia won't get the credit for those two wins that it thought it had earned at the time, but the intangible benefits were immense.
Second, on an emotional level, it's hard to tell many West Virginia fans that the season to date has been all prelude, to be ignored like the preliminary music at an opera. (O.K., I would ignore the entire opera, but work with me here.) Watching this team grow, learn and develop over the past two-plus months has been a fun journey, albeit it with painful moments. Seeing Frank Young get his year in the spotlight has been a joy. Watching the youngsters move into important roles and learn the Beilein system has been an education, and a blast to boot.
And what about all those moments? Joe Alexander's high-flying dunks. Slick passing from Alex Ruoff and Darris Nichols. Rob Summers showing his ability. Jamie Smalligan's three-pointers. All those moments didn't mean anything, or should be brushed off? Hardly.
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Would anyone have predicted that Alex Ruoff would have had more assists than backcourt mate Darris Nichols this year? The sophomore has 104 assists so far, against 93 for Nichols.
Several factors contribute to that surprising stat. First, the Beilein offense puts both guards in position to act as point guards (and sometimes, the forwards as well) so there are plenty of chances for the "two" to play more like a "one". This was demonstrated almost from the moment Beilein installed his offense at West Virginia, as Jo Herber put up excellent assist totals to complement those of point guard J.D. Collins.
Second is the good shooting of the Mountaineers. WVU is making 45.7% of its shots, and 37.1% from three-point range. It's rare when Nichols brings the ball upcourt, starts a play and makes a pass that directly leads to a shot, or drives and dishes early in the possession. That ensures that Ruoff gets just as many chances as Nichols to touch the ball. And since there's lots of movement in the offense, Ruoff often gets at least one chance per possession to get the ball on the wing, with shooters arrayed around him outside the three-point line. Knock ‘em down, and Ruoff's totals go up.
Third is the play of Nichols himself. A laid back player who certainly doesn't get the credit he deservers, Nichols sets up plays and often puts Ruoff in position to be the middleman on a two-pass scenario that leads to a basket. For that, Nichols gets nothing in the stat book, but the appreciative Ruoff certain knows who to credit in such situations.
"Playing with Darris helps me a great deal," he says. "I don't know his assist to turnover number (it's 3.72 to 1) but it is something I am striving for. He does it so well – he is amazing. That is always pushing me to do better."
Of course, Ruoff's ratio is an excellent 2.6 to 1 – a total that any point guard would take. The fact that he concentrates on Nichols' superior stat, rather than his own, says a lot about his outlook on the game. He also credits other aspects of the Mountaineer program for his 104 dishes.
"I passed the ball decently in high school, but I don't think it is me," he said when asked to account for his rising assist total. "I am getting a lot of them from the offense. Frank and Joe make some great back door cuts that lead to assists. I think I owe it more to them than to my passing ability."
Still, seven assists in one game, as Ruoff dished out against DePaul, has to be cause for some sort of personal celebration right? Not in Ruoff's case.
"It helps the team if I can get people lay-ups," he said as he deflected the question as neatly as he does opponents' passes. "Right now I am just trying to chase Darris."
How can you not love that?
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A leftover, but too good to not use:
Apparently, high paying jobs in janitorial services are still available at some state schools