Battling the Sooners is difficult enough, but doing so without consistent performances from some of your better players complicates matters even more. Such was the case on Saturday.
Junior forward Joe Alexander was aggressive and productive, but in the first half especially had little help. Alexander scored any way he could, whether that meant driving to the hoop, pulling up with his soft mid-range jump shot, or canning a three from the top of the key, and finished with a team-best 11 points in the opening frame. Of West Virginia's 26 first half field goal attempts, 11 belonged to the Mt. Airy, Md. native.
It's not as if Joe was playing all for himself or anything like that. On the contrary, he looked to be the only player dressed in gold willing to attack the hoop. Point guard Darris Nichols was the only other Mountaineer to attempt more than two shots in the first half, finishing 2-6.
Da'Sean Butler, was once again plagued by foul trouble, missing a big chunk of the first half with a pair of personals and going to the bench again early in the second half after being whistled for a reach-in on Oklahoma's David Godbold. When Butler is on the floor, he is as dangerous as anyone on West Virginia's roster with his ability not only to score, but cause match-up problems with his endless arsenal of nifty moves on both the perimeter and interior.
When Butler can do nothing but watch, his team is nowhere close to full strength. That's certainly not meant as a knock on any of the other Mountaineer players, but instead is an indication of just how valuable Butler is to this team. Foul trouble has been the only hurdle in an otherwise productive sophomore campaign for the Newark, N.J. product. In order for West Virginia to thrive in Big East play, Butler must find a way to avoid the cheap yet costly fouls he has habitually committed throughout the first part of the season.
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I can't begin to tell you how impressive Oklahoma freshman Blake Griffin was. If you watched the game or were one of the more than 12,300 people in attendance at the Civic Center, you undoubtedly took notice of the burly rookie who plays more like a seasoned veteran.
At 6'10" 243 pounds, Griffin is undoubtedly a commanding presence in the post no matter how big or small the opponent happens to be. When he gets the ball close to the basket, his moves are refined and confident, and he shows nimble feet around the hoop.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Griffin's game is his surprising athletic ability for someone with such size. Simply put, dude has some sick hops.
It's not as if his athleticism is any big secret. After all, Griffin won the slam dunk competition at last April's McDonald's All-American game. Still, it's flat out freaky to see a guy that big soar through the air and get that much hang time before slamming home an alley-oop. It's a combination that will definitely be making the young man some serious cash once he moves on to the next level, which may happen as soon as this summer.
I've tried to come up with a comparison for Griffin, and can't think of one off the top of my head. His post game is very Carlos Boozer-esque. His above the rim game for someone such size is more in the neighborhood of Sir Charles, though the Round Mound of Rebound stands more around the 6'6" mark compared to Griffin's 6'10".
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Win or lose, Saturday's game was a learning experience for WVU. Not a moral victory, mind you, as in my opinion there is no such thing, but at the very least a sure sign of things to come in the Big East.
The Sooners unquestionably were the biggest team the Mountaineers have gone up against this season, and while that categorization might hold true all the way to the end of the season, the fact remains that more often than not, West Virginia will be the smaller squad when it takes the court.
"They were a physical team, especially down low," said Nichols. "They were a lot bigger than us, but most of the teams in the Big East are going to be bigger than us. We just have to be ready for that."
So, how will the Mountaineers respond when they face another big, physical team in conference play similar to OU? Well, for starters, hopefully with a closer rebounding margin. The Mountaineers were outrebounded early and often, and finished with 36 boards, nine shy of Oklahoma's total.
As big as that gap was, though, the Mountaineers made up for it with 20 second chance points, compared to just eight for OU.
While the physical nature of the game certainly allowed the bigger Sooners to have their way on the glass, it more importantly allowed them to get to the line. OU shot 35 free throws, with Godbold and senior center Longar Longar combining for 23 of those attempts. By comparison, the Mountaineers attempted 22 foul shots, making 15. Those numbers are solid, but on a night when you shoot just 21 percent from behind the arc, you have to find other ways to put the ball in the hoop. Getting to the foul line is one way to do so.
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Finally, let's take a step back and look at the big picture for a second. The Mountaineers are 10-2, and have improved by leaps and bounds from the beginning of the season. Turnovers have been cut down, and bench contributions from the likes of John Flowers, Wellington Smith, Joe Mazzulla, and even Ted Talkington have been big positives for West Virginia.
That being said, this next four-game stretch is crucial. Playing the likes of Notre Dame, Marquette, Louisville, and Syracuse in consecutive games is par for the course in the rugged Big East, but if the Mountaineers allow the missed opportunities and late-game miscues of Saturday night to weigh heavily on their psyche as Big East play begins, the conference slate will chew them up.
Was it a bad loss? Sure. All losses are bad. But it's only one, and there is a lot of basketball left to play.