Mid-Range Makeover?

Most of the talk surrounding Joe Alexander's various talents on the basketball court for the past two plus seasons have centered around one very arbitrary, hard to define word: athleticism.

However, in recent wins over New Mexico State and Maryland-Eastern Shore, Alexander has shown much more than just that raw, well-chronicled athleticism that has Mountaineer fans and NBA scouts alike on the edge of their collective seats.

During a first half span against UMES, Alexander found himself open in the paint several times. Instead of putting his head down and trying to bully his way to the hoop, he simply took what was given, draining a ten foot jumper from the Big East logo.

Wait, was that a mid-range jumper? Isn't that a lost art, long out the door with other bygone basketball phases such as short shorts, Rec-Specs, and the jump ball? And in Morgantown, of all places, the epitome of three-point land?

Yes, it was a mid-range jumper, alive and well thanks to Alexander, a player from whom one never quite knows what we will witness next. Could be a dazzling dunk, could be a powerful blocked shot, or could be...see, that's the thing. We just never know what's next, or at least we haven't. That soon could change, as I will explain in a minute, if his recent play is any indication.

In the second half, he drained another, this time from the wing with the aide of the backboard, a move perfected by many of the most fundamentally-sound power forwards to ever play the game. Just what in the name of Tim Duncan was happening down there on the Coliseum floor?

With each basket, West Virginia's lead was getting bigger. And with each basket, Alexander's transformation from raw athlete to seasoned basketball player was taking more positive steps than Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in "White Christmas."

"I've been working on it my whole life," a coy but confident Alexander said of his mid-range game after the win, "I just never shot it. I need to start using it a lot more. I need to start just looking for it."

You think? Against the Hawks, Alexander finished with 22 points and eight rebounds on the heels of his 16 point, 10 rebound double-double in Saturday's win over New Mexico State in the consolation game of the Legends Classic. More importantly, he played under control and within himself for a majority of the 24 minutes he was on the court.

It's not as though Alexander's athleticism is a detriment. On the contrary it is unquestionably his greatest strength. He can throw it down with the best of them, as evidenced by his follow-up slam of a first half miss by a teammate. His shot blocking ability (nearly three per game so far this season) is certainly something other teams must factor into the equation when going to the hoop. He is, as the late Al McGuire would say, "a ballerina in the sky" or "a cloud piercer."

The key for Alexander, though, is what happens when there is no open lane for the dunk, or when he cannot block the shot without also committing a foul with the body. In the past, we've seen seeds -- flashes, if you will -- of the "little things" growing in Alexander's game. We saw them in his first year as a starter last season, only to witness his confidence and production take a big hit as the schedule began to pile up and Alexander's minutes began to wind down.

After playing just 36 minutes total in his freshman season, Alexander was logging a heavy load through the beef of West Virginia's Big East schedule, averaging more than 26 minutes per game during the regular season and Big East tournament. By the time the NIT had begun, Alexander was still starting but playing significantly less. After playing at least 20 minutes per game in all but one contest through the first round win over Delaware State, Alexander would not crack that number the rest of the way. Rock bottom, one could argue, was his stat line in the NIT Finals against Clemson which offered just one rebound and one turnover in 16 otherwise anonymous minutes of play.

What happened, one might wonder? It's hard to say, other than by season's end, it seemed like any mistake Alexander made on the court was greeted with a quick hook from the Mountaineer bench and an all-expenses paid spot on the pine during crunch time.

A simple fact that is easy to overlook but also one which fans and observers must consider when evaluating the jumpin' junior is his relative youth in organized basketball. Alexander spent much of his childhood overseas, learning the game on his own for the most part. Through high school, a one-year stay at Hargrave Military Academy, and his freshman year of college in Morgantown, he never played anything close to the types of minutes he had to play last season. On top of that, his tall but lanky body wasn't exactly prepared for such a dramatic shift in minutes.

In his first summer of the Bob Huggins regime, Alexander hit the weights like a duck to water, turning his wiry 210 pound frame into a finely-chiseled 230. With his work in the weight room being lauded by teammates and coaches, the Mt. Airy, Md. native has shifted focus since mid-October towards day in and day out improvement on the court. The light has not completely come on 24/7, mind you, but under the watchful eye of the coaching staff, he has made significant strides. The biggest hurdle left, according to Huggins, is consistency from an effort standpoint.

"When Joe gets to where Joe plays every play," Huggins said following Saturday's win over the Aggies, "then we'll have something."

"I think he's getting closer and closer to playing every play," the coach reiterated on Tuesday night. "I think he's getting to where he's supposed to go now. Sometimes, he didn't get where he was supposed to go. I thought he did a much better job of getting where he was supposed to go."

If West Virginia and its hometown head coach are going to go where they hope to go come March, Alexander's continued development as an all-around player is critical to that ultimate success. Perhaps at the end of the season, Alexander's recent two-game tear will be nothing more than that, another flash of what could be, chalked up to nothing more than early season energy and non-conference cupcakes.

Then again, it might just be the start of something special for West Virginia's potential-laden forward.

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