Total Reliance

Joe Alexander carried West Virginia, in some stretches almost single-handedly, to wins over Pittsburgh and St. John's. Can that continue in the Big East tournament, or must the Mountaineers get a more balanced effort?

We realize, of course, that West Virginia isn't a one-man show. WVU wouldn't be sitting as the five seed in the Big East tournament without Joe Mazzulla's five second dash-and score through the Red Storm defense, or Da'Sean Butler's almost unnoticed double-double, among other contributions. But there's absolutely no doubt that WVU wouldn't be heading to Madison Square Garden on a high note without Alexander, who has averaged 31 points per game over his last three contests.

On the negative side, WVU has, at times, become stagnant on offense -- watching as Alexander operates. That's not to suggest that the junior has become a ball hog. In fact, the number of bad shots he has taken in March can probably be counted on one hand. The fact is that Alexander has more ability to create shots than anyone else on the team, and as a result his 59 shots over that period is not excessive. But when he gets the ball in the post, there seems to be less movement than normal from the West Virgina offense, and that's something that has to change. Why? Because West Virginia can beat St. John's, or Pitt at home, or maybe Providence at the Garden with Alexander leading the way. But it's not going to be able to win a second round matchup with Connecticut in the same manner.

That's not to suggest that this is a major problem -- simply one that must be addressed in practice this week. Certainly, a return to health for guard Darris Nichols, suffering from a sprained ankle, will be a big key. So to will the continued support from Butler, more offensive output from Alex Ruoff, and some contributions from Wellington Smith and John Flowers. But perhaps most importantly, it will be the timing of those contributions that matter.

Down the stretch against St. John's, it was clearly the Joe Alexander show. WVU made sure that he touched the ball every time down the court, and the Red Storm didn't have an answer for him. Alexander made 13 of his final 15 free throw attempts in the game, and scored nine of WVU's final 13 points in regulation (as well as five of the Mountaineers' 15 overtime points). That herculean effort allowed West Virginia to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it also highlighted the fact that some players were simply watching, rather than attacking, as West Virginia played on the offensive end.

Nothing highlighted that observation so much as WVU's strategy against St. John's press in overtime. Bothered to the point that it was throwing lob passes and struggling just to get the ball upcourt, West Virginia began inbounding the ball to Alexander, clearing the floor, and letting him bring the ball up on the dribble. The offense then largely consisted of handing off to a guard, running Alexander off a couple of screens, then posting him or clearing the floor so he could go one-on-one with a defender. Smart strategy, of course, but one that won't be tenable against teams with equal talent.

Again, this isn't meant to imply that WVU doesn't have players capable of turning in key plays at crunch time. It does. But they will have to show their ability to do that, starting with the first round matchup with Providence on Wednesday, and certainly in possible games later in the tournament. No team will be able to ride one player so heavily as West Virginia has in its past three games and advance to Friday or Saturday night at the Garden.

And don't get the idea that I think it's a bad idea to keep getting Alexander the ball, or for him to take the number of shots he has. Every team has a player or two that it goes to in crunch time; that it depends upon for big shots. However, those teams with balance, teams that have players that can also hit the big shot or make the key defensive play, are the ones that advance, that play on the big stage Friday and Saturday night. West Virginia has players with that potential. Certainly Nichols, Ruoff and Butler have shown it. Smith, Flowers and Mazzulla must prove their ability to do it under the lights of the Garden. And if they do, WVU could end up with a nice run in New York and a higher than expected seed in the NCAA tournament.

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