Kevin Jones looks to lead an inexperienced Mountaineer unit against a power-house Big East conference in 2011-2012
2011 was a historic year in Morgantown. There was a whirlwind of coaching changes and conference migration.
Football, for the most part, has occupied the spotlight for the better part of the year. Now, as football season enters its final phase, our focus shifts to the hardwood.
If you've caught any of the Mountaineer's first eight games this season you may have noticed this is a different looking group compared to years past.
Gone are Joe Mazzulla, Casey Mitchell, Cam Thoroughman, and John Flowers. Bob Huggins' rough n' tumble mentality is still very much at the root of West Virginia's persona, and the Huggins school of basketball is lenient on no one.
For the legion of new faces in Morgantown the lessons will be frequent and prickly reminders of high expectations.
This season may be young, but conference play commences in just two weeks. In the Big East, time is a luxury no team can afford.
Here's a snap-shot of what we know about the Mountaineers thus far in the 2011-2012 season.
If you are having trouble recognizing many of the faces on the Mountaineer bench this season, don't worry—most of us are having the same problem.
This year's team includes eight—count 'em—eight freshman.
That's encouraging for the future. This a very athletic and rangy group. Standouts include guard Jabarie Hinds (Mt. Vernon, NY), forward Keaton Miles (Lincoln HS, TX) and Gary Browne (Arlington Country Day, FL).
While the potential for this group is staggering, they will likely commit a comedy of errors throughout this season.
Huggins' brand of basketball is based on possession and grinding it out under the basket. It is not renowned for its finesse.
Discipline and guts are the guiding maxims of Huggins' system, and for a young player those are often difficult skills to grasp.
In Bob Huggins' capable hands this group will eventually be as competitive and dominant as any in the country. That is then; this is now.
Expect to witness the growing pains in HD this season. There will be plenty of mistakes and "Huggy bear" will show plenty of teeth. However, there will also be flashes of greatness, and though West Virginia won't likely crack the top of the Big East this season they will improve.
Seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant will have to shoulder much of the weight this season if West Virginia hopes to make a run in the Big East. So far, so good on that end. Jones and Bryant are averaging 20.1 and 17.0 PPG, respectively.
All the same, expect an angry Bob Huggins at relative intervals as this team builds anew this season.
You might have seen something streak across the screen at several points in the Mountaineer's first eight games. Even the biggest, baddest Sony HD has a hard time gathering enough pixels to provide a good look at it.
I'll help you out: it's WVU freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds.
No, he's not the Flash, but he's pretty darn close. Fresh out of the gate, Hinds has impressed with a skill set and a level of athleticism that few, if any, West Virginia freshman have rivaled in recent memory.
At 5'11", Jabarie isn't beating anybody in sheer size, but his speed and ability to rip through defenses is something to behold.
On a Bob Huggins team where size and tenacity are chief characteristics, Hinds provides the speed and elusiveness the Mountaineers have been lacking.
While his natural ability is remarkable, room and need for growth is just as apparent.
At times in the first eight games, speed has actually hindered Hinds. It's forced him into ugly turnovers and ill-advised mid sprint passes. These are the kind of aggressive mistakes that Bob Huggins will be able to manipulate and turn into positive plays.
It also helps to have a seasoned leader in Truck Bryant.
Bryant can take Hinds under his wing and show him the finer points of the college game. What Bryant lacks in Hinds' explosiveness he more than makes up for in his effort on the defensive end and in long range shooting. Look for that to rub off on the eager freshman.
8.9 PPG and 3.9 APG aren't shabby numbers for someone as green as Hinds. After another year or two under Huggins' watch those numbers should skyrocket.
There will no doubt be moments throughout the year that we pull collectively at our hair and voice our frustrations at a Jabarie Hinds turnover. But fear not. This young man's potential down the road is worth a few glaring moments early on.
So far, West Virginia has not shot well from behind the arc and a lack of experience won't help.
It's no secret that some teams are simply built differently than others.
The John Beilein teams of the mid 2000's were three-point machines. Bob Huggins' Mountaineers are built differently.
Where Beilein liked to stretch his offense as much as possible (think a hardwood version of Rich Rod's spread), Huggins likes to take the game inside and win with a more physical dimension.
That doesn't mean shooting should take a back seat, but thus far in the 2011-2012 that seems to be exactly what has happened.
In its first eight games, West Virginia has gone 40 for 133 from behind the arc. That's ghastly.
Take into account that 3/4 of made three pointers have come from just three players and you start to realize what the Mountaineers look like from outside.
When you run a physical, in-your-face brand of basketball as Bob Huggins does it's necessary to be able to put up points from long range in order to compliment your front court play.
Right now, Truck Bryant is emerging as West Virginia's go-to guy on the perimeter. Last week against Miami, Bryant shot 5/7 from behind the arc to help the Mountaineers to a ten point win over the 'Canes.
Kevin Jones has also contributed, despite being a far more effective shooter from inside the perimeter.
Word coming out of the Mountaineer camp is that 6'6" freshman Aaron Brown is widely regarded as the best pure shooter on the team. Although he has not contributed so far this season, time will tell how much of a factor he can be.
With eight freshman and bigs like Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Noreen rounding out the Mountaineers' roster, it will take a concerted effort from Brown, Bryant, and Jones to see that WVU can score from long range.
It's a long year, and with so much inexperience to battle it is likely the Mountaineers will have to come from behind fairly often this season.
What little help they can get from their shooters will mean a great deal for the Mountaineers' overall success this season.
As Big East play looms, it's imperative that Bryant, Brown, and Jones prepare themselves to carry the bulk of the scoring duties for the Mountaineers moving forward.
Senior Kevin Jones bailed on the NBA draft in favor of another year in Morgantown. So far, the decision is paying dividends as he is averaging a double double in points and rebounds.
Yeah, I said it.
It may be bold and I'm sure that comment will furrow many a brow, but Kevin Jones can do it all.
It goes without saying that the Big East is loaded with first class talent. Jeremy Lamb, Peyton Siva, Tim Abromaitis, Ashton Gibbs. The list is long.
While all of these names are deserving, there isn't one player more singularly important to his team than Jones is to West Virginia.
Last year as a junior Jones averaged 13.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG–rock solid numbers. But, as I've stressed up to this point, the lack of returning talent means the pressure has been on Jones from the first day of practice to elevate his game immensely. So far, he has.
After testing the waters in the NBA draft, Jones returns for his senior year already averaging 20.1 PPG, 11.4 RPG, and 1.3 BPG. If that isn't doing it all, I don't know what is.
Of course, box stats won't be the only barometer of Jones' performance throughout his final season.
With eight freshman looking up to him, Jones' intangibles will need to be at peak levels at all times. That means his attitude–during good and bad stretches–and his ability be a floor general during pressure situations is key.
His experience with success in the Big East and NCAA tournament in recent years is another key.
As the Mountaineers will likely face one up-hill test after another, look for Jones to emerge as an energizing force on both ends of the floor to help keep West Virginia in good standing come March.
Kevin Jones' consistency and steady improvement over the last three years will come to a head in this, his final season in the blue and gold. He is a first class talent with an already cemented legacy in Morgantown, and I have no doubt he will enter the next level as the best the Big East has to offer.
West Virginia is a talented group, but inexperience and a shortage of upperclassmen will hurt their chances of making a splash in the post-season
Lack of experience.
Not enough upperclassmen.
An overly difficult schedule.
One, if not all of these, will factor into West Virginia having perhaps its worst season in the last three years.
I'm not trying to be negative. I'm trying to be reasonable with my expectations.
The last two WVU wins have been encouraging, especially a hard fought road win in Wichita over doppelganger Kansas State. But the Big East is an unforgiving conference. It's especially merciless towards teams as young and inexperienced as this year's Mountaineers squad.
Am I ruling out West Virginia from showing up on tournament brackets come March? No.
I'm confident West Virginia has fielded a tournament team, but I don't expect a deep run and I especially don't expect a conference title. There are simply more talented, better outfitted teams this year than West Virginia. Conference foes UConn, Pitt, and Syracuse, for example, have the requisite make-up to engineer national title runs.
I would love more than anything for Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones to return to the Final Four for the second time in their West Virginia careers. At the end of the day, though, I feel that the extent of the load bearing they have done throughout the season will be too much to handle come tournament time.
Next year and the year after that, West Virginia will have a more experienced group whose mental chemistry catches up to its sheer athleticism.
In the meantime, look for the Mountaineers to finish out conference play in the middle of the pack and take an early exit from tournament play in March.