It wasn't always the same player, and it wasn't always one that might be expected in terms of match-ups or previous game play. But at most critical junctures during the year, West Virginia would receive a boost from a role player or two that helped get it over the hump.
You don't have to look back any further than last week's Big East tournament championship run to get great examples of the rotating support that WVU benefited from. Certainly, Da'Sean Butler was outstanding, Kevin Jones was his usual reliable self and Devin Ebanks played lockdown defense, but there were just as many pitch-ins from other team members that led to West Virginia's first ever Big East title.
The championship game with Georgetown offered lesson one. After a mostly down season, Casey Mitchell came off the bench to score five points late in the second half to help WVU keep the lead down the stretch. This, after scoring all of two points in his previous three games combined. Mitchell played just five minutes against the Hoyas, but in that time he also snared a rebound and contributed a steal to end two Georgetown scoring chances.
On the inside, Deniz Kilicli saw his first-ever tournament action in the championship game, and although he didn't score, his time on the floor was certainly valuable to WVU's effort. Playing his best defense of the season, Kilicli "showed" or stepped out, against Georgetown high ball screens to help prevent drives to the basket, then scrambled back to cover his own man and prevent a pass inside in the post. That's something he has been working to improve upon as he learns the ins and outs of defense in Division I, and his efforts, along with those of Wellington Smith and John Flowers, kept Georgetown center Greg Monroe from being the dominant force he was in the early rounds of the tournament.
The most visible of the performances outside the "Big Three" was that of Wellington Smith, who recorded the second double-double of his career with 11 points and ten rebounds. Smith had two high-rising tip-ins for scores in the first half and shook off a 1-7 shooting performance against Notre Dame to help West Virginia to the title.
And you can't discount the floor play of Joe Mazzulla, who was coolly efficient with seven assists against zero turnovers, not to mention a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.
Look further back through the schedule, and you'll see more of these kinds of performances. High-energy defender John Flowers moves to the bottom of the 1-3-1 late in the season, and despite little experience there, gives WVU a different look out of one of its signature defenses. Dalton Pepper scores 15 points against Syracuse in a two-point loss, hitting three of six three-point attempts. Jonnie West hits a big three as time expires in the first half against Cincinnati. Cam Thoroughman grabs seven rebounds while dishing out two assists and approximately ten bruises in 31 minutes of tournament action. Dan Jennings provides some physical play. Add them all up, and while you won't get a number of high scoring weapons, you will get players that can fill a role and are ready to contribute when called upon.
That, perhaps almost as much as having a bench fill of all-stars, might be a key to tournament success. It certainly was for West Virginia in the Big East tournament, when just about every player had a key stretch in which he made a critical play. With that depth, WVU doesn't have to depend on just one or two players in supporting roles to come through every night. It doesn't have to match a power player against a quick guard. It can adapt to different styles and game situations, and most often finds a player to make the additional key contribution that leads to victory.
When you step back and look at the big picture, this sounds kind of basic. Most great teams are made up of more than two or three very good players, and get excellent role play from a variety of directions. But there's something about this West Virginia team that goes further than that. Just about every player has been in the spotlight at one point or another this year and come up with those key plays, and that has to be a great confidence booster as the Mountaineer prepare to take on Morgan State on Friday. With some outsized NCAA expectations, this team knows that it has the potential to meet them. You just don't know which player is going to be the catalyst for success.