A Question of Fit

As soon as it became clear that John Beilein was bailing on West Virginia, observations began surfacing on the suitability of "his" players to other head coaches and their styles of play – some of it wildly over the top.

While there's no doubt that Beilein preferred players with certain characteristics (the ability to shoot and be a student of the game being two of the most prominent), that doesn't mean that the players he recruited at West Virginia are unsuited for other styles.

There has been a great deal of moaning about that issue in general and the fit of certain players into the scheme and style of, for example, a Bob Huggins. The conclusions drawn (which often leap wildly ahead of any sort of logical analysis), often end up kicking half the team to the curb and downgrading the other to the status of benchwarmers.

Fortunately for West Virginia, that's not a realistic perception. While it's true that some current Mountaineers might not be the best fit for a running, pressing, up-and-down game, it also doesn't mean that those players can't find a spot with a new coach. The generalizations used to pigeonhole all these players are unfair, and certainly don't reveal the whole picture. Let's look at some players on the current roster and see how they might adapt to a system that is quite divergent from the one employed by Beilein.

First, there's no question that players such as Darris Nichols, Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith could run and press. The former quality has been demonstrated to some extent this year, as WVU pushed the ball more than it ever did under Beilein. Nichols is a tremendous decision-maker in transition and an excellent finisher. Butler's array of spins, drives and slashes would be even more dangerous in such a system. And Smith, with his excellent length and soft shooting touch, would be difficult to defend at the rim.

Those, of course, are the easy ones. What about some other players on the 2007-08 roster? You might be surprised when some thought is given to their skills.

Take Alex Ruoff, for instance. In addition to his three-point shooting skill, he's also a hard-nosed defender who gets as many steals with his toughness as he does with his quick hands. Think he might not be a valuable asset on the second line of a zone press where he can jump into passing lanes, execute double teams and create havoc in the open court? Players don't have to possess Olympic speed and quickness to be great defenders, and Ruoff is certainly a player that would be a leader no matter what defensive system he is in. His toughness on the court, and leadership abilities, would be invaluable.

The same can be extended to Joe Mazzulla, who showed his fearlessness from day one in taking the ball to the basket for the Mountaineers. While a few of those drives might have been ill-advised, he showed that he wasn't going to back down from anyone, and that he had the confidence to push the action and attack. Sound like that might fit a coaching candidate you know of? As the year went on, Mazzulla improved his decision-making, made great passes, and drew fouls that resulted in made free throws. The suspicion is that he could team with Nichols at the front of a press to make life difficult for opposing guards.

On the front line, Joe Alexander is right in the mold of the run-and-jump player that thrives in the up-tempo game. Give him the ball in the open court, and a highlight reel play is likely to ensue. That's not to say that Beilein's system was wrong for him. In fact, it probably has given him a great grounding in the fundamentals that his limited basketball background had provided him. With his length and quickness, he too could thrive in a faster-paced game.

Jamie Smalligan might appear to be the odd man out, as speed is not his forte. However, that sort of ten-second assessment can be dangerous, as it doesn't take all factors into account. Not many coaches have had a sweet-shooting big man as part of their arsenals, so who's to say how they might be utilized. Picture a Huggins fast break with Smalligan or Ruoff spotting up while Nichols or Mazzulla attack as Butler or Smith slashes to the hoop. Where could defenders put their emphasis?

As for the other freshmen and first year players, the jury would still be out, just as it would on their suitability for the Beilein system. Devan Bawinkel's fracture put a major crimp in his development, just as Joe Mazzulla's thigh bruise slowed his progress. Cam Thoroughman reported showed a lot of competitive fire in practice, and his versatility certainly wouldn't hurt, as he could play the two, three or four. There's just not enough data in yet to suggest that any of these players, or any of the remaining ones on the bench, should be sent to the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, there are numerous other angles to be played out. Would the team respond to a fiery coach with a different personal style? Beilein had more steam in him than many people realized, and certainly wasn't above letting loose a few choice words – many of them unprintable – when he deemed it necessary. So while the change from Beilein to another coach would also require adjustments on the personal level, the distance might not be as great as many might think.

With the search for a new coach moving forward with more rapidity than any other in recent Mountaineer history, the meshing of coach, system and player will be the next big issue on the discussion block. However, don't assume that a new coach, even one with a wildly divergent style, scheme and system, won't be able to make it work with vast majority of the current roster.

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