Last season, West Virginia's Joe Alexander realized his well-documented potential under the guidance of new head coach Bob Huggins. After spending the first two seasons of his Mountaineer career showing flashes of greatness, Alexander blossomed into a bona fide star as a junior, averaging 16.7 points per game on his way to being named first-team all-Big East.
While Alexander's rise to prominence and selection as the eighth overall pick in June's NBA Draft was great publicity for Huggins and the Mountaineers, his absence has unquestionably left a sizeable void in West Virginia's 2008-09 team. More specifically, those 17 points each game must be made up.
The question is, who will fill that void?
"I think we're going to have four or five guys in double figures," Huggins said last week. "That's the kind of team we have. We don't have a guy that can do what Joe (Alexander) did on a consistent basis at the end of the year."
Certainly, it is more likely that a cast of players will work together to fill Alexander's shoes. Junior forward Da'Sean Butler has the ability to score in a variety of ways, and it's not unreasonable to expect the Newark, N.J. native to increase his average of nearly 13 points per game from one year ago. Ditto senior guard Alex Ruoff, who worked tirelessly in the offseason to improve his ability to drive the ball to the basket instead of solely relying on his excellent perimeter shot.
The wild card, though, might be junior Wellington Smith. Last season, Smith certainly showed flashes of what he can do, registering three double-figure scoring efforts. This year, Smith hopes to put it together on a more consistent basis, much like Alexander did one year ago.
"We don't have Joe Alexander anymore, but we're looking for one," Smith said. "I'm going to try to fill that role and try to be a force in the middle. I'm going to try to be more of a scorer and try to get a lot more rebounds this year. I want to do whatever I can do for us to do well."
He will certainly have the opportunity to show what he can do. And if the offseason is any indication of things to come, Smith is more than willing to put in the necessary work that it takes to make the proverbial leap.
The Summit, N.J. native has added 13 pounds of muscle to his 6-7 frame, which should come in handy when squaring off against bigger foes in the post this season.
"I'm close to 230 now," Smith noted. "I didn't weigh 220 coming into last season and there is just a big difference from that to weighing 230. You feel it when you're lifting weights, when you're practicing, when you're in open gym and stuff like that. I'm happy to be where I am. "
On a team devoid of height, Smith will be counted on to play minutes at all three of the frontcourt positions his year. His phenomenal athleticism combined with the added bulk should help him in each of the spots. Perhaps the biggest challenge he'll face is matching up with opposing centers on both ends of the court.
Smith is anxiously awaiting the chance to prove his worth against some of the Big East's burliest.
"We're still small, but we're bigger," he said. "We're obviously stronger, and we'll be able to handle those guys who are bigger than us. I think we did well against some of those guys last year.
"I'm looking forward to fives guarding me, just because I'm quicker than a lot of the fives and I'm a lot stronger," he continued. "I want to do something with that."
In a way, Smith is sort of a microcosm of West Virginia's team heading into the season. Athletic, bulked up, a little bit undersized in terms of height, but nevertheless full of potential to do big things in 2008-09.
"It's just about improving over the course of the year and learning your spot to keep on doing what we need to do," he shrugged. "We're confident about what we've got to do this season."