One Year Later

After struggling down the stretch one year ago, junior forward Joe Alexander is finishing his first season under head coach Bob Huggins in a big way.

The word potential can often be both a blessing and a curse. Such has been the case with Alexander, as his raw athletic ability combined with a lack of seasoned experience on the basketball court has led many fans and observers to think too much about how good he can be without properly taking things in the perspective. That's to say that, yes, he can be very good, but part of his development into a star player will include some growing pains.

One season ago, Alexander got off to a promising start for John Beilein's Mountaineers, combining with sharpshooter Frank Young to give WVU an outstanding one-two scoring punch for much of the year. Down the stretch, however, Alexander pulled something of a disappearing act. Having played only 36 minutes total in ten appearances as a true freshman, the grind of the Big East season took its toll in the final weeks of his sophomore campaign. In his final nine games, Alexander failed to reach double-figures in scoring, including pair of goose eggs in West Virginia's run through the National Invitation Tournament.

After WVU easily dispatched Clemson in the NIT Finals, there were questions all over the Mountaineer fan base. Of course many of those had to do with the immediate coaching future of Beilein, who would move on to the University of Michigan within a week. Some, though, were regarding Alexander's slide. Was it confidence? Was he tired? Was it both?

With Young departed and now playing in Germany, Alexander was expected to carry more of a load for West Virginia this season under first-year head coach Bob Huggins. From day one, it was apparent that not only was he capable, but Huggins would settle for nothing but the best effort from his potential-laden power forward. And as West Virginia heads down the final stretch of the regular season, Alexander is delivering the goods, what with back-to-back 32-point performances against the likes of Connecticut and Pitt.

His recent dominance begs the question: what is different this year as opposed to last season? Is it simply the maturity factor of being a year older? Is it the presence of Huggins, a future Hall of Fame coach who has previously molded the likes of NBA standouts Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin and Jason Maxiell among others into the dominant college players they were under his watch? Or is it simply a matter of having more confidence and, more importantly, something of a killer instinct, all a part of the aforementioned development? According to Alexander and his teammates, it's all of the above, and then some.

"Joe is just a guy who came into college and, unlike other players, didn't have experience in AAU and stuff like that," said senior center Jamie Smalligan, who not only starts alongside Alexander on the WVU front line but shares an apartment with him during the season. "I think that his lack of experience last year really hurt him. I think Coach Huggins has a better system for him than Coach Beilein's. He just works his (butt) off, and works harder than any player I've ever played with."

"To be honest, I'm hitting the weights more," Alexander said. "At the end of last year, we weren't lifting, and I remember saying that I wasn't going to do that this year. This year, we've been lifting even more, and it's made a huge difference."

A staple of his late-season funk last season was an on-court mistake followed by a quick hook from Beilein, followed by a lengthy "heart to heart" on the sideline which would leave Alexander slumping on the bench looking down and disinterested at the proceedings he had just been a part of. By reputation, Huggins is one of the most intense coaches in the game, and while the coach has certainly had his fair share of sideline frustrations with the forward, Alexander's response has been drastically different from last season. Instead of sitting and sulking, he is often learning from and applying, yet another sign of his development.

"It's a different style of coaching," said teammate Alex Ruoff, a fellow member of West Virginia's junior class. "Nobody likes getting yelled at, but you have to take the positives out of it. He's listening, he wants to be a good player and everybody knows that."

"As he watches more tape, and sees how good he can be when he does what the coach wants, then it's a lot easier to listen and be coachable," added Smalligan. "That's when you can be as dominant as he's been these last two games."

Throughout the season, Huggins has reiterated that "Joe wants to be good." More and more, it's becoming apparent that the "want to" is turning into on-court results. And with the Mountaineers sitting in good shape for a bid to the Big Dance, their success for the rest of the season could be determined in large part by the play of Alexander. If his recent performances are any indication, then there are plenty of happy times ahead for Huggins and company.

"He's a monster," Smalligan said. "I mean, he's playing the way we all know he can play, and that's why Coach Huggins is so hard on him.

"If he plays like that, nobody can beat us."

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