Stars or Guards?

One of the accepted wisdoms (if that's a word) of basketball is that teams with a trio of stars is going to be a serious contender for championships. West Virginia certainly has that right now, but there's also concern that a missing piece of the puzzle might keep the Mountaineers from the highest of their goals.

There's certainly no doubt that the Mountaineers have met the three-star threshold. In Da'Sean Butler, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks, WVU has the mix of talents and skills that many Final Four teams show.

Butler is the do-it-all force for West Virginia – the guy that can provide whatever is needed. Score? He leads the team with a 16.6 points per game average. Rebound? Third on the team with 6.1 per game. Defend? He often draws the toughest defensive match-ups while playing almost 34 minutes per game (including 40 in WVU's last game against Purdue). And to top it all off, he takes on ballhandling chores when West Virginia's two point guards, Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla, are out of the game.

Jones has been classified as a garbage man by some, but that's a woefully inadequate description for his game. Certainly, he pounds the offensive glass and scores on putbacks (his 45 offensive boards leads the team by a wide margin). But that's just part of his game. His developing post play, in which he has shown a nifty turn and shoot move, is a developing part of his offense, and he's also shooting 42.4% from three-point range, making 14 of his 33 attempts so far this year. He's also a tenacious defender who gives maximum effort every time out, and is clearly the most improved player on the team.

Finally, there's Ebanks, who is bouncing back from an early season absence due to personal reasons, and more missed time due to an injured left thumb, to become the third part of WVU's star trio. Ebanks tops the team in rebounds per game with 8.5, and is third overall in most other statistical categories only due to his lack of playing time compared to Jones and Butler. But there's not much doubt that he's the most physically gifted of the three, and has the ability to take over any game in which he plays. The injured thumb has definitely hindered his ability to drive with the ball this year, as switching hands on the dribble has been more of a push and a slap than the smooth transition it should be. As (if?) that injury improves, he figures to improve even more over the remaining two months of the regular season.

This trio of players has the ability to help West Virginia make deep tournament runs, both of the Big East and the NCAA variety. Yes, I know that the Mountaineers were blown out at Purdue, and this isn't to excuse that loss. WVU played with little defensive intensity and didn't stress the Boilermakers much in a 15-point loss that wasn't even that close. But that's just one game, no matter how painful.

What could keep WVU from those championship dreams is the lack of a steadying influence at the point guard position. That's no big secret, but with the Big East schedule getting underway, West Virginia has to be able to make the most of every possession, and that just hasn't been happening so far this year. Truck Bryant hasn't improved his ballhandling or decision-making skills since last year, and Joe Mazzulla's shoulder injury means that he likely won't be on the court during critical situations. That leaves WVU with a few options, none of which look greatly promising at this point. 1) Live or die with Bryant at the point. Would Bryant respond to the notion that this is his team to run, if not dominate statistically? Maybe so, but that has been tried in games this year, and the results have been hit or miss. Teams that press (Louisville) or have quick, aggressive defenders (Villanova) have caused Bryant problems in the past, and there just hasn't been much evidence to suggest that will change. Maybe the light will come on soon, but it's clear that head coach Bob Huggins' patience is wearing thin. 2) Play Butler and Ebanks at the point. That's been the fallback measure this year (and last) and while it has met with the most success, it also removes one of WVU's scorers from their best offensive positions on the court. While they can start the offense and still get their points, playing either at the top does seem to take them out of their comfort zones. Also, Ebanks isn't a good choice until (if?) his thumb fully heals, because the ballhandling required to bring the ball upcourt and start the offense isn't a good assignment for a player that is basically playing one-handed. Overall, this isn't a question of if Butler or Ebanks can do it (they can, when healthy) but a question of what's best for the team, and of how far it can go. Can WVU make tournament runs without point guard on the floor for long stretches? There aren't really any other options. Jonnie West isn't a point, and Casey Mitchell isn't either. Dalton Pepper could become the sort of jack-of-all-trades in the mold of a Joe Herber, but he's not ready to take on those additional roles yet. So it seems, for now, as if its one or the other of the two options West Virginia has tried to date. That brings us to another clear fact – at tournament time, it's a guard's game. Sure, you have to have scorers and rebounders, but teams that want to go far and contend for championships have savvy leaders at the point who can drive and dish, run the offense, and add a few points of their own. That wasn't always the case – big men and big dog scorers once ruled the roost in the post-season play, but now a team without the creator/orchestrator at the point seems to be at a big disadvantage. Could West Virginia buck the trend and win without a dominant player handling the ball? Perhaps, because new trends have to start somewhere. But at the same time, it has to at least be efficient enough to get the ball into the hands of its Big Three and let them do their work. For now, that question is still open to debate.

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