All year, head coach Bob Huggins has preached that his team "has to do everything right" in order to win games – especially those against highly-ranked foes. Following that thought one step further, the item of teamwork comes quickly into view. Everyone on the Mountaineer team must know and execute his role in order for WVU to be successful. To be sure, there are going to be occasional steps outside established form – John Flowers hitting a big three-pointer or two comes to mind – but for the most part West Virginia's ultimate success in the 2008-09 season will be depended on how well players other than Butler and Ruoff fulfill their roles. With that in mind, could the spot of third scorer also be one that is shared?
After all, there's nothing that says the third man into the mix has to be one person. It could be a different player every night that scores 12-15 points. Or, it could, as in West Virginia's win over St. John's on Wednesday, be a shared duty. Devin Ebanks scored ten points. Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones added eight apiece. Add up their contributions, and you have 26 points to go along with Butler's 21 and Ruoff's 17. Or, combine any two and you have 16 or 18 complementary points to help support WVU's big two.
Head coach Bob Huggins would have no qualms with such an arrangement.
"It could be by committee," he said. "Our freshmen had 26 points. That's a pretty good night from those three. We'd take that."
Of course, the support in question wouldn't have to be limited to WVU's freshman trio, but they are best positioned to provide it. WVU's other potential scorers are saddled with injuries (Joe Mazzulla's shoulder remains a long term problem, and the growing thought is that he won't play again this year), while Jonnie West has just returned from a broken foot that erased much of the progress he has made. The rest of the squad has other primary roles, such as defense and rebounding, so it will likely fall on the shoulders of the trio of newcomers to provide that support.
The common mistake, however, is to place expectations on just one of those players. Ebanks, as the most heavily hyped of the three coming in, was looked upon to provide the most scoring, but that's an unrealistic expectation for most freshmen. A handful of double digit games for Truck Bryant also sparked hope that he would quickly become a 15 point per game guy, but the many challenges in learning to play the point have kept that from becoming a reality – at least for now. And Jones, a diligent worker who will improve each and every year, has made slow but steady progress – just not quite quickly enough to make him a dominating scorer.
None of those things means any of these players are disappointments. Far from it, in fact. All three have shown that they will be very good, perhaps even great, Big East players. They just aren't ready to do all the things that Butler and Ruoff can do, night in and night out. But taken in combination, perhaps they can – and now, when West Virginia needs it most. In the future, any or all of them figure to become the players that the upper-class pair is today. But for now, if each can put up eight or ten points, grab a total of, say 15 rebounds and dish out eight or nine assists, then WVU will have found the support it's looking for. Not in one player, but in a group.
"It can be anybody at any given time," Ebanks said after posting a stat line of 10 points, eight rebounds four assists and two blocks against the Red Storm. "It could be Truck, it could be me, it could be K.J. or John. It doesn't matter who it is, as long as we win the game."
Jones, who has become the first man off WVU's bench in most situations, agreed.
"I think we have enough talent that anyone can step up during any game," the dedicated freshman said. "We just need to keep playing hard and stay focused, and I think anyone can jump in and do that."
One other benefit to the support-by-committee role is a lack of pressure .The freshmen, who are still cutting their teeth on Big East competition, don't need to feel like they have to score 16 points in each and every game. That could lead to forced shots and other bad play. If, on the other hand, they know that the committee approach is in force, then a missed shot or one bad play isn't likely to have a negative effect on future performance.
The St. John's game is a perfect example. Bryant played just 21 minutes after suffering from cramps. He scored just eight points, which is under his average, but Ebanks and Jones were there to pick up the slack in the scorebook. Jones' eight points and six boards in 21 minutes of action was the gap-filler that WVU needed in this game, and although the Mountaineers would have own the game without them, his plan and energy on both ends of the court showed just how this approach could work for the Mountaineers down the stretch.
Obviously, tougher challenges await over the next few weeks. But the theory of how WVU can support Ruoff and Butler with a third quarter has been proved. It now just has to be repeated.