The two thoughts in the previous paragraph might seem to be a bit in conflict, but they actually highlight what may be the biggest strength of this Mountaineer squad. Butler, of course, is West Virginia's leader. He's unafraid to take the big shots, and when West Virginia is in a hole or needs a big bucket, he's going to be Option A – and sometimes, Options B and C as well. His performance against St. John's on Saturday was just the latest in a long line of examples, as he hit five threes in the second half to help rally a sluggish Mountaineer squad to a win. WVU even moved Butler to guard on offense to run some sets for him to get him more shots and more chances to score.
The counterpoint to this, however, is that West Virginia is versatile enough to win games in different ways – and its that flexibility that will make them a tough out in tournament play. For every weakness that has been identified as a potential fatal flaw, WVU has found an answer. When one player hits a slump or plays poorly for a game or two, another has been able to step in, fill the gap, and be productive enough to help secure a win.
For an example of the former, look no further than West Virginia's struggles against full court presses. Earlier in the season, there was great concern, and justifiably so, that teams would be able to press the Mountaineers into submission. Squads such as Louisville, which thrive on creating that sort of havoc, would eat WVU up in the backcourt – or so the thinking went. However, WVU, with a variety of methods, has been able to break pressure, and has kept that from being a major issue.
The St. John's game provided a great example of the latter. With Truck Bryant having a shaky defensive day in man-to-man, West Virginia switched to its 1-3-1- zone, with Joe Mazzulla deployed at the back of the set. Mazzulla again battled much bigger foes to a standstill as WVU rallied for a huge win.
This isn't meant to point the finger at Truck. He had a solid game against Pitt and has been improving his offensive decision-making. It's simply to illustrate that WVU has answers, or at least options, when things don't go well.
There are many other players and examples that could be highlighted. The additional scoring punch that can be provided by Deniz Kilicli and Wellington Smith. The defensive support from John Flowers. Outside shooting from Dalton Pepper. Energy and toughness from Cam Thoroughman. Defensive changes and offensive adjustments from head coach Bob Huggins and his excellent staff of assistants, who get far less credit as tacticians than they deserve. Put them all together, and WVU has the ability to answer any challenge or tough situation it faces.
The important thing to remember about this versatility is that it means a different player, or tactic, might get highlighted in each game. Playing time will also rise and fall accordingly. I've had people ask what is wrong with Dalton Pepper, who, after scoring consistently through the first 15 games of the season, has averaged just 1.6 points per game in his last five outings. The answer? There's nothing wrong with Pepper. It's simply that he is showing up on other team's scouting reports as a shooter that has to be covered, and he's now getting more attention. Against Ohio State, for example, the Buckeye bench was constantly identifying Pepper as a shooter, and making sure he was never left uncovered, and that screens and picks were defender over the top to keep him from getting open jumpers. Even with that additional attention, however, Pepper's presence serves a role. If teams have to come out and cover him aggressively, they create gaps elsewhere that others can exploit. And that's the reason he is in the game in the first place – to get teams out of lane-hugging zones.
This isn't to say that WVU is going to roll to the Final Four unchallenged. Poor shooting, slow starts and stretches of bad offensive execution have abounded this year, and at some point the odds say that the Mountaineers will dig a hole that they can't climb out of. West Virginia isn't a dominant team that simply overpowers its foes. But it is a squad that is resilient, and is now confident that it can correct problems and answer challenges, no matter how difficult. That, as much as anything else, will make West Virginia a team to be reckoned with in March.
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Has West Virginia ever had a better pair of long-range shooting days as it did on Saturday, when both Da'Sean Butler and Liz Repella were perfect beyond the arc? Butler, of course, went 7-7 from downtown in WVU's 79-60 win over St. John's, but Repella was just as accurate, making all four of her three-pointers and finishing with 25 points on 9-13 shooting.
Both also passed milestones on Saturday. Butler became the fourth-leading scorer in WVU men's history, with 1,822 points, while Repella became the 27th women's player to score 1,000 points in her career.
In some ways, the women's team mirrors that of the men, as head coach Mike Carey now has the depth to play different lineups and combinations. His Mountaineers are a lock for the NCAA tournament as well, and are now, like the men, playing to get the highest seed possible in the big dance.
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Will West Virginia's delayed travel back from New York City hurt in preparations for the Big Monday game against Villanova? Due to the winter storm that blanketed the northeast, WVU was unable to return home Saturday afternoon, and was instead scheduled to make the trip on Sunday. The Mountaineer basketball staff did bring along all of the Villanova tape and scouting information, so from that standpoint things weren't bad, but you have to wonder if there will be any effect from the delayed travel. Huggins would no doubt downplay that idea, and in truth, the situation is kind of like a road game, with a mid-day trip and a game the next night. Still, it would have been nicer to get home on time.
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There's little to complain about in terms of Kevin Jones' play, but there is one thing I wish he'd do – dunk the ball when he's close to the rim. I understand that Jones isn't a guy who's going to rise above a defender and throw it down in his face, but when he has an open path to the basket, he needs to dunk it rather than going with a lay-up. It doesn't have to be a monster, tomahawk job either – just go up strongly with the ball and throw it down. Against St. John's, Jones missed a wide open lay-up in the opening half, when every point was a struggle for the Mountaineers. That's the second such miss in recent games for Jones, and its something that he needs to correct. Given his rate of improvement and his outstanding work ethic and desire to succeed, I'm betting that he does.
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The first missed shot from the field of Deniz Kilicli's career came at the 10:50 mark of the first half of his second game, as he missed a jump hook from the left block.
That's the fun note of the week, but the good observation to pair it with is that he's not forcing shots. He did take five in just seven minutes, but none of them were bad, and he did pass the ball back out when he was covered and didn't have a good look at the rim. He played a nice two-man game with Butler in the first half, picking and posting to produce an open path to the basket for Butler. He still is chasing blocked shots defensively, which is taking him out of rebounding position, but I think those skills will come along. And in the meantime, he is going to help on the offensive end.
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Finally, one tactical item that I disagree with. Down 33-19 to St. John's in the first half, and with about 38 seconds on the clock, West Virginia held the ball for the last shot. This drives me nuts. I know the thinking might be, especially after the stinker of a first half that WVU played, to just get off the court and regroup, but to me that's something of a give-up. I'd much rather run the offense and take the first good shot. I know that would leave more time for the opponent to score, but who's to say they will? They might jack up an early shot, or you might get a steal and another easy hoop.
Of course, my view is totally wiped out by the success that West Virginia has had at the end of the first half in its recent games. Despite those stretches of bad play we talked abut earlier, the Mountaineers have excelled at getting points on their final possession. Against Louisville, it was Devin Ebanks hitting a jumper. Wellington Smith converted an offensive rebound into a lay-up against Pitt, and Butler made three free throws against the Red Storm. Momentum going into the locker room might be an overrated thing, but points aren't and West Virginia has been very effective in getting scores on their final possession.