West Virginia Mountaineers
Overall Rank: #44
Conference Rank: #9 Big East
2007-08: 26-11, 11-7, 5th
2007-08 postseason: NCAA
The first year for West Virginia under Coach Bob Huggins went very well. The team did a great job changing philosophies and ended up in the Sweet Sixteen. That has made the expectations for this season just as high. However, without a couple key players, the Mountaineers might take a small step backwards. Yet, the recruiting class is solid and the future is very bright in Morgantown.
Joe Alexander led the team with 16.9 points and 6.4 rebounds last season. That success led to his being selected eighth overall in the NBA Draft. Alexander would take all the big shots for WVU and that leadership will be difficult to replace. Point guard Darris Nichols has also wrapped up his collegiate career. Nichols dished out 3.2 assists and turned the ball over just 1.1 times per contest. He was also an effective scorer. Often overshadowed by the big time scorers on the team, Nichols’ steadying influence cannot be overstated. Jamie Smalligan never put up big numbers, or even played that many minutes, but the seven-foot center did start just about every game. Little used Ted Talkington and Jarrett Brown will not be suiting up for the basketball team this year.
Coach Huggins is bringing in a trio of talented forwards who will not only give the team some more scorers in the paint, but also provide better and tougher defense. The best of the bunch if Devin Ebanks. The 6-9 forward has the mobility and shooting touch of a guard and the size and strength of a forward. Ebanks was ranked by most as a top 20 player in the class of 2008 and should immediately be a major contributor. Like Ebanks, Kevin Jones is another versatile forward who can battle in the paint or hang out on the perimeter…on either side of the floor. Dee Proby does not have as much potential as Ebanks or Jones, but the junior college transfer does have more experience and, at 6-10 and 240 pounds, more size than anybody else on the roster. The lone newcomer on the perimeter is Darryl Bryant. The 6-2 guard is tough, strong and a great leader; and that will make him a quality point guard in the coming years. For now, he will learn off the bench, but do not be surprised if Bryant emerges as the steal of this class.
Who to Watch:
There are two things WVU needs to do this year in order to repeat the success of the 2007-2008 campaign. One is replacing Alexander. But that should not be much of a problem with Alex Ruoff and Da’Sean Butler playing on the wings. Ruoff is not the greatest athlete around and will not create his own shots, but he is a great long range shooter and averaged 13.8 points per game last season. Butler can score from outside too, but he will also get into the paint. For a team that is a little green in the post, having an experienced player like Butler help out on the glass will be very important. The other issue is Joe Mazzulla. Is the junior ready to take over the point guard duties full-time? Mazzulla has spent plenty of time learning behind Nichols, but keeping the team under control as well as Nichols did will be extremely difficult. Making matters worse is the off-field incident that could result in disciplinary action against Mazzulla. That would leave Bryant and little used Jonnie West on top of the point guard list.
There is plenty of potential from this group. They might even be more talented than last year’s bunch, but just less experienced. The frontcourt has Wellington Smith who can block shots, but he will need help from Ebanks in the scoring and rebounding departments. Ruoff and Butler will do enough scoring on the perimeter, but West Virginia will not have the luxury of making mistakes if they want to make the NCAA Tournament again. Without Nichols, the mistakes will happen more often and the Mountaineers could miss the big dance for the last time in quite a few years.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Joe Mazzulla, Junior, Guard, 5.8 points per game
Alex Ruoff, Senior, Forward, 13.8 points per game
Da’Sean Butler, Junior, Forward, 12.9 points per game
Devin Ebanks, Freshman, Forward, DNP last season
Wellington Smith, Junior, Forward, 5.2 points per game