West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins has never been one to take losing too well. But the Mountaineers’ 77-62 loss to No. 4 Purdue on New Year’s Day was an especially tough one to swallow when one of the Boilermaker fans came up to him after the game and told him how much they enjoyed playing Huggins’ team.
The third-year coach, who ranks fourth among active coaches in wins responded, “Well, I hope we really enjoy playing you all in March.”
It seems a bit cliché by now, but losses like the one that WVU suffered last Saturday in West Lafayette can expose big weaknesses that can come back to hurt you come March, when they matter the most.
In West Virginia’s case, one big weakness that was not only shown in the Purdue game, but in most of the games up to this point in the season, was the underachieving play of the backcourt.
And as with any teams guard play, it all starts at the point. Which for the No. 8 WVU squad means sophomore Darryl “Truck” Bryant.
The Brooklyn native started most of his freshman season when junior Joe Mazzulla went down for the season with a shoulder injury and quickly became known as an exciting playmaker who kept the crowd on the edge of their seat—whether that was a good thing or bad thing, evident by Truck’s 72 turnovers last year—nearly every trip down the floor.
But by the time the Big East and NCAA Tournaments rolled around, Bryant had started to calm down and turn the ball over less, as shown by his 2.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in postseason play last year (14 assists, 6 turnovers in four games).
However, by the time that their nationally ranked game against Purdue came up, it looked like the Truck that was supposed to help lead this team on the road to the Final Four had pulled a U-turn and was digressing back to the way he played early in his freshman season, committing a lot of turnovers and forcing too many shots.
In fact, the team went with their “big” lineup, starting five forwards and no guards against the Boilermakers, instead of letting Bryant get the nod.
The game ended, the Mountaineers took a day off, and by Wednesday when they returned home to continue Big East play against Rutgers, Truck was back in the lineup, with the full faith of his head coach.
“With each practice, I think he understands better. I think his play is better.” Huggins said. “His attitude’s really been good in terms of accepting what we’re trying to have him do and ask him to do—and nobody’s telling him don’t score. I’m the same guy who coached (Nick) Van Exel. I’m the same guy who coached (Steve) Logan. So, I don’t have a problem with point guards scoring.”
Bryant used that confidence that Huggins had in him to have a performance that could have turned his season around, with 15 points, two assists, and only one turnover.
You might look at that line and say that two assists isn’t that great, but with the way that he was running the offense that made the most difference in the Mountaineers’ 34-point win over the Scarlet Knights.
Instead of being the guy who was just running and gunning and making mistakes along the way, he turned into a floor general in the textbook definition of the phrase—using smart passes to set up his teammates, and eventually himself, for multiple scoring opportunities.
Besides Bryant, two other guards made a nice impact on the game.
After having season-ending surgery on his shooting shoulder, let’s just say that playing offense has been a little tougher than usual for junior Joe Mazzulla. West Virginia’s backup point guard has made his name known over the past three years on his intensity on the defensive side of the ball, as the most tenacious defender on the team.
While the defense has still been there so far this year, Mazzulla has been stuck not taking very many shots (just nine heading into the Rutgers game) and shooting all foul shots with his right hand. But against Rutgers, the Johnston, Rhode Island native made huge strides towards making his way back to full strength, scoring four points on two great drives through the lane.
“It’s getting easier to cope with.” Mazzulla said. “I kind of know that it’s there, so I kind of just deal with it and just take care of it after the game and just try not to worry about it during the game.”
Also making a big contribution from the shooting guard position was freshman Dalton Pepper, who finished with six points.
Pepper, who reminds me of former WVU standout Alex Ruoff, just a little more athletic and aggressive going to the basket, played just nine minutes, but showed that he is able to do a lot of things that will come in handy for this team come later on in the Big East schedule, as well as in postseason play.
But one guy who came into the year with great expectations, but has yet to meet what everyone thought he should be doing, has been Casey Mitchell. The reigning Junior College Player of the Year made many West Virginia faithful (or at least my friend Jakob) scream like little schoolgirls when they saw the tape on Mitchell after he committed to Bob Huggins.
Everything looked like he was meant to be something special , armed with great ability handling the ball, a lightning fast release, silky smooth shooting stroke (say that five times fast), and a game that goes above the rim, it looked as if the Mountaineers had found their replacement for the scoring void left by the graduation of Alex Ruoff.
Maybe he's still not comfortable yet, maybe it's the knee injury that's been bugging him all season, or maybe the D-1 game is just too fast for him.
But fast forward to now, and Mitchell has dropped from being in the starting lineup in the first couple games to being completely outplayed by the before-mentioned Dalton Pepper on Wednesday night, only scoring 6.8 points per game, shooting a lousy 36 percent from three-point range (should be better for all the hype surrounding him), and has committed more turnovers than assists.
Mix those offensive struggles with a lack of intensity on the defensive end, and there you have a combination that will always lead you to a nice comfy seat on the end of the bench on a Bob Huggins’ team.
With the exception of Mitchell, the other backcourt players looked much improved in the Rutgers game. This could be because there is quite a nice step down between Purdue and Rutgers, but the true test for this group of talented guards will be tonight as they head to Notre Dame to try earning their first win in South Bend since 1996.
More to come on that game a little later.