Alexander, one of the players West Virginia depends on to drive to the basket and create scoring chances, would occasionally force the action when a lane to the hoop wasn't available. As a player who is still learning many of the finer points of the game, he still, from time to time, pushed the ball on dribble or post up moves into positions where a good shot wasn't available, or where defenders were waiting. A turnover, or the loss of a good scoring chance, was usually the result – sometimes followed by a quick hook to the bench.
Since the Pitt game, however, Alexander has taken a big step forward in his decision-making process. Forced shots have been almost nil, and his ballhandling, now unpressured by shaky decisions, has greatly improved. Alexander had 43 turnovers heading into last weekend's New Jersey doubleheader, but committed just one giveaway in each of those games. Offsetting those very minor errors were a combined 19 rebounds, nine assists, five blocked shots and two steals – testaments to Alexander's improved all-around play.
Alexander, when asked about the improvement, was his usual laconic self.
"I think I have just been playing better," he said following the 89-68 win over Seton Hall. "It's just been part of my development."
True enough, of course, but Alexander isn't someone to delve deeply into questions from the media. In fact, he's been know to have some fun with his answers from time to time, so it can be a problem to get real insight into whatever topic is being discussed. However, in this case, there are a few factors that appear to be playing into his improved across-the-board stat lines.
First, and perhaps foremost, is the realization that a screen being set for him doesn't automatically mean that he has to shoot the ball. While Alexander should never be viewed as a gunner, there were times when he forced a drive or shot after getting a screen set or a play run for him, even though the desired opening wasn't really there. When that happened, the offense often bogged down as teammates stood around and watched a one-on-one play develop. That simply hasn't occurred in the last two games. Alexander hasn't dominated the ball, hasn't dribbled in one place (which brought the offense to a screeching halt), and hasn't forced a bad shot. The results? Eleven for 24 from the field, and 28 points in two games. A better object lesson couldn't be demonstrated.
The second is something of an offshoot of the first. Alexander looks much more comfortable when he is off the ball, and is now making better use of those situations to set himself up for scoring opportunities. The most visible example is the way in which he sets screens. In the past couple of games, he has come off those screens and made good cuts (mixed in with the occasional fade) to set himself up in scoring position, and has taken advantage of them by getting return passes and converting. That's all part of the growing basketball knowledge he is accumulating, and it's certainly showing in his scoring numbers.
Alexander has also improved his offensive rebounding, which has led to additional scoring chances. Five of his 19 boards in the past two games have come on the offensive end, and those additional tries have not only resulted in second shots for his team, but additional points for his stat line.
Finally, the pairing with an improved Wellington Smith is also paying dividends. With two athletic leapers on the floor that can attack the boards on both ends, WVU now can crash into the lane with much more effectiveness than with just one such player. And that doesn't include the effect on the defensive end, where the pair has combined for 14 blocked shots over the past two contests.
"Wellington is coming along great," Alexander deadpans. "We are a lot alike, both athletic, and we can both play the wing and the post."
Alexander's newfound balance has been a boon to his team, but head coach Bob Huggins doesn't want it to go to far. He knows that WVU has few players capable of driving and creating their own shot against tight defense, and doesn't want Alexander to ignore his ability to create offense.
"If anything, Joe might be sharing it a little too much," Huggins said after the Seton Hall win. "He has been doing well, but we don't want him to pass up chances."
Like many items on the court, it's a matter of balance. Alexander needs to create, but must do so without forcing too much. And if he can continue to find that optimum spot consistently, West Virginia will be a difficult team to beat.