On a night in which West Virginia's two most experienced players – junior forward Da'Sean Butler and senior guard Alex Ruoff – picked up right where they left off at the end of last season, it was perhaps the effort of one of the most inexperienced Mountaineers that made the biggest impression in WVU's 45-point win over the Phoenix.
In his first official collegiate game, reserve point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant delivered a much-needed spark off the West Virginia bench, finishing with 12 points, six assists and no turnovers in 16 minutes of play. Bryant's presence was particularly felt in the second half.
With Elon trailing by just nine points at the 17:13 mark of the second half, Bryant entered the game for starter Joe Mazzulla. Over the next 4:57, the Mountaineers would outscore the Phoenix 18-4.
Coincidence? Not hardly. During the run, Bryant scored five points and assisted on baskets by Kevin Jones and John Flowers. By the time his nearly six-minute stint was over, West Virginia's lead had ballooned from nine to 30. The play of the rookie floor general was a big reason why. Seven of those points were his, while four other baskets during the stretch were assisted by the freshman.
It was, in essence, a sneak preview of just how good Bryant can be when playing his best. As his nickname would seem to indicate, Bryant has great penetrating ability, using his strength to get into the lane and either finish at the cup himself or dish it off to an open teammate for an easy look. He can also knock down open shots from the perimeter. Doing so might be a necessity when he's on the floor with Ruoff and Butler, each of whom will command significant attention from the defense.
If Bryant can continue to knock down open jumpers from the perimeter like he did against the Phoenix, West Virginia's offense will only be that much more dangerous. And if and when defenses adjust to account for Bryant's outside shooting, his ability to get into the lane will arguably become even more effective.
"I think I'm an all-around type of point guard," he said. "If somebody leaves me open, I can knock down open shots. If somebody plays me close I drive by them and look for the open player. I just think I'm an all-around player."
Though Bryant's offensive ability was on full display Saturday night, his greatest strides since the beginning of preseason practice have been made on defense.
Such wasn't always the case for the Brooklyn, N.Y. native, who, like many highly-touted high school stars, didn't always put in a ton of work on the defensive end of the court during his days as a prep star. Yet when he arrived at West Virginia, head coach Bob Huggins let Bryant know in no uncertain terms that defense would not merely be a necessary evil at West Virginia. On the contrary, it is a top priority under the future Hall of Famer's watch.
"When Truck got here, that was the first person he had ever tried to guard, so he didn't really know whether he could do it or not," Huggins explained. "He's really starting to catch on. He struggled defensively in practice, but he's getting better and better. I think he was better in the Mountain State game. Actually, (Saturday) morning in walk through I was watching him and he's starting to get an idea of what we want. He's a smart kid."
The method behind the defensive emphasis is quite simple. While offensive outbursts tend to come and go, you always have a chance to win when you play great defense. For Bryant, playing good defense gives him confidence which carries over to offense.
"As soon as I start playing defense better, I just feel better on the floor," Bryant explained afterward.
Couple that newfound mentality for Bryant with his noticeable offensive skills, and one certainly begins to wonder just how good he can be when the proverbial light comes on. Saturday night's effort provided observers with just a flash of Bryant's potential.
It goes without saying that there will be both highs and lows for Truck Bryant as he embarks on his first season of major college basketball. While his impressive debut will undoubtedly result in unrealistic expectations from some, it should be noted that there will be games when he does not play nearly as well as he did against Elon.
"That's the best he's played," Huggins said, referring to both practices and games.
Then again, there will also be games when Mazzulla is much better than his two-point, four-foul effort against the Phoenix. On nights when both Mazzulla and Bryant are playing to their potential, West Virginia has a chance to beat any team it plays.
"Joe, he struggled a little bit tonight but he'll pick it up. If he does struggle, I've got his back," Bryant said. "And, it's the other way around. He's got my back if I struggle. We're just going to stick it out together and try to win a national championship together."
"I got the jitters out in the last exhibition game, and so I think that as the season goes on, I'll start to play better."