There was plenty of reason for optimism in the wake of West Virginia's 98-78 exhibition win over Mountain State University last weekend. Most notably, Da'Sean Butler's 38-point, 11-rebound performance gave a little peace of mind to Mountaineer fans wondering who – if anyone – is capable of filling the scoring void left by the departure of Joe Alexander.
In reality, though, it was nothing but an exhibition. Sure, the Cougars were a decent foe, one who would arguably challenge a handful of teams on West Virginia's schedule. Still, much of what one takes from any exhibition game must be taken with a grain of salt.
Throughout the week, head coach Bob Huggins and his staff have digested the film, identified strengths and weaknesses of their team and adjusted accordingly in practice.
"I think we're better defensively and I think we're better offensively," Huggins said on Friday of the week that was inside the Coliseum. "Mountain State kind of jammed it up and we didn't get the back cuts and the curls that we normally get, but we had wide open looks. It's just so hard to take everything away when you have the kind of ball movement that we have and when you have people who move the way that our guys move."
Tonight, the season begins for real in Morgantown when Phillipi native Ernie Nestor brings his Elon Phoenix to town fresh off a 2008 runner-up finish in the Southern Conference tournament.
"He does a great job coaching them," Huggins said of Nestor. "When you watch them play, I think people will walk away saying that they are a really well-coached team. They run their sets and they run their sets very well.
"They play to their strengths," he continued. "Their big guys don't go out on the floor and shoot shots they can't make. They have some bigs who can make shots. So, for the bigs that can make shots, it's more of a pick and pop where with the other guys it's more pick and roll. They keep the ball in the hands of the guys who can make plays."
Huggins will hand the keys of his offense to junior point guard Joe Mazzulla, who will be making his first collegiate start against Elon. Mazzulla has patiently bided his time behind steady standout Darris Nichols for two seasons. And while the styles of their games are different, the goal remains the same for Mazzulla as it did for Nichols – run the team, be a leader and limit mistakes, particularly the ones which lead to baskets for the other team. For the most part, Huggins has been pleased with what he's seen from his floor general.
"He's just been a little bit loose with the ball," explained the head coach. "We want him to penetrate. He's not Darris – he's going to make some mistakes, but he's going to make a lot of things happen to. We want him to make things happen, we just have to get him to where he understands a little bit better when to go and when not to go. He dribbled into the teeth of the defense a few times when there really wasn't anything there. It's just going to take some time and he's working. He wants to be good."
"He's going to put more pressure on the rim. Darris probably at the end of the day might be a little bit more consistent of a perimeter shooter and probably isn't going to take as many chances as Joe takes. You can't argue with the career Darris has had and I think Joe is going to have a similar career in terms of success."
One area in which Mazzulla has been very consistent is providing leadership in practice for a Mountaineer team that has a unique balance of veteran players and fresh-faced newcomers. Mazzulla, along with senior guard Alex Ruoff and junior forward Da'Sean Butler, has been singled out by Huggins for providing leadership in many different forms.
"Da'Sean, Joe and Alex have all been terrific," Huggins said of the veteran trio. "They're really trying to help those guys. With Da'Sean and Alex and Joe, (the rest of the team) sees how hard they work. Da'Sean is in there every day after practice shooting the ball. Alex stays after every practice and shoots the ball. It's not just what they're saying and how they're trying to help them learn things. They see that, day in and day out, those are the guys who stay in there and work."
Speaking of Ruoff, expect him to again spend a considerable amount of time in the post tonight. On a team devoid of size, the senior guard is one of the lone Mountaineers that should have a size advantage on many of his defenders over the course of the season. Though Ruoff's biggest strength is his outside shooting, his 6-6 frame – which received added bulk in the offseason under the guidance of new basketball strength coach Andy Kettler – could be an asset in the post against smaller guards.
The key now is for Ruoff to continue to hone his skills in the post, where he will naturally see more double teams than he's used to seeing on the perimeter. These skills include sensing the double team and learning to quickly pass out to an open teammate before the defense can collapse.
"We needed to get it out quicker," Huggins said. "We don't post deep enough, and he hasn't really played down there. Some guys go too fast, he goes too slow. He's going to have to make the decision a little bit quicker because they're running people at him. I think it's going to be an effective deal for us."
With more repetition, it could become precisely that. Expect to see more of it tonight.