Life in the Big East
Everyone knows how difficult it is to win in the Big East Basketball Conference. Not that they needed a reminder, but the West Virginia University Basketball Team received that memo from Notre Dame last Saturday night in South Bend. The Mountaineers lost their first conference game to the Domers by a final score of 70-68. Their second loss in Indiana in eight days.
The Mountaineers almost survived the first half where the Domers shot a torrid 75% and made nine shots in a row at one point. West Virginia trailed by 20 at the half. Da’Sean Butler rimmed out a three pointer at the buzzer which ended the WVU comeback attempt.The loss leaves WVU with a 3-1 conference record and a 12-2 record overall.
This week provides West Virginia an opportunity to get back on track. The Mountaineers play at South Florida this Wednesday night and host fifth ranked Syracuse at home on Saturday in a nationally televised game. So, if WVU can go on the road and get a conference win, come home and defeat a top five opponent, the WVU basketball world will be right again.
Well, maybe, or maybe not. Certainly a conference road win is great in the Big East no matter who the opponent is. So is a win against a team in the top five. Even if the Mountaineers pick up these two wins, and they very well may, something seems missing from the equation which had/have some people calling West Virginia a Final Four team.
OK, this is getting a little weird. I’m preparing to offer reasons why West Virginia might not be a final four team. That is a path not traveled very often. Cutting to the chase, some key reasons why West Virginia was, and is, so highly regarded going into this season were the presence of forwards Butler and Devin Ebanks.
Point guard was supposed to be very solid with sophomore Truck Bryant returning from a strong finish down the stretch of his freshman season. Joe Mazzulla was returning from shoulder surgery. Having a Bryant and a Mazzulla running the point would make almost any coach smile. Add to the mix, Casey Mitchell, a two guard who was the JUCO Player of the Year last season and it was easy to picture big things for this team.
So far, all those special accomplishments are still out there. This isn’t meant to sound like an eulogy, but signs exist which could prevent the Mountaineers from making a run to truly elite status. Butler has held up his end of the billing, but Ebanks has been something of an enigma. He missed three games to begin the season for undisclosed “personal reasons” and missed another with a hand injury. He has had a couple of remarkable games, but was banished to the bench for much of Saturday’s game. He ended up scoreless. Whatever is going on with the talented sophomore, he has not been playing to the level which had almost everyone in the basketball world calling him a NBA lottery pick this spring.
The point guard situation has been spotty as well, and anything but a strength. The play at point as been so inconsistent that Coach Bob Huggins has started five forwards several times, not that starting five forwards is a bad thing. I mean doing so may not work in every match up, but having the ability to go with five threes and fours shows great versatility.
What that says about the point guard position is the problem. Bryant had some bad outings. He wasn’t distributing or handling the ball well and his shot selection was seriously lacking. For that, Bryant saw the court a lot less for several games. He now seems to have a better understanding of his role in Huggins’ offense.
Mazzulla is becoming a sad story. The shoulder surgery doesn’t appear to have helped the redshirt junior that much. The lefty can’t raise his left arm past shoulder height. He has such limited range that he is shooting free throws with his right hand. Even so, he is giving as much to the team as he can with defense and running the offense. Some nights it looks like his shoulder is better, other nights he’ll take a bump and have to leave the floor in pain. Tragic.
Mitchell was supposed to come in and make everyone forget about Alex Ruoff. If Mitchell can persevere through the rough spot he is traversing in his first season at WVU, he may blossom into a star. He has shown signs of having greatness, but his mistakes seem to outweigh the benefits, at least on a consistent basis.
If this team ever puts it together they could play until April. If they don’t, expect many more close games against teams the Mountaineers should handle easily.