Twenty years from now, if and when you think of the 2009-10 West Virginia basketball team, you’ll likely remember one indelible image, an image both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. You know the image. You’ve got it right there in your mind’s eye as you read this. Da’Sean Butler laying there on the floor in Indianapolis, a mixture of physical and emotional pain on his face following a torn ACL and other injuries in the second half of an increasingly uncompetitive loss to eventual national champion Duke, the usually grumpy head coach Bob Huggins cradling his head and consoling him. Just remembering that image is enough to get most sports fans choked up, a great basketball player, a great person, struck down in the final possible game of a truly great four-year college career. While that wasn’t the end anybody wanted for Butler, it was indeed the end, and so for the first time in four years, the Mountaineers will field a team without the smart, athletic and clutch team leader. Gone also is the steady veteran Wellington Smith and the mercurial Devin Ebanks, who headed off for the NBA after two seasons in Morgantown.

But, of course, the cupboard is far from empty for Huggins and his squad. Ready to take over as a team leader and as the number one option is junior forward Kevin Jones, who emerged last season as a versatile threat for the Mountaineers. He’s a terrific athlete with a varied offense game, capable of strong back-to-the-basket moves, explosive finishes around the rim and even stepping out and knocking down some threes, a facet of his game that took a huge step forward last season. His free throw shooting and his midrange game could still use some work, but it appears for all the world that Jones is ready to pick up where Butler left off. Next to Jones up front for the ‘Eers will likely be sophomore center Deniz Kilicli, who gained eligibility in February last season and who showed flashes of brilliance despite his rustiness. Kilicli is an physical post player with the capability of scoring in several ways down low, whether through his variety of post moves or on putbacks. He’ll give West Virginia a post presence that they haven’t had in some time.

The backcourt isn’t exactly settled, but there are a variety of options there. Senior point guard Joe Mazulla and junior point Darryl Bryant both return as team leaders. Mazulla is a gutty little point who first gained national attention with a sparkling game in West Virginia’s second round upset of Duke in 2008, but he has had injury problems that have limited him severely since then. Bryant is no stranger to injuries either, however, as a broken foot kept him out of the last three games of WVU’s Final Four run. Having both back and healthy would give Huggins plenty of options, including possibly starting them both as a two-headed point. More likely, one of the two will get the nod with the other coming off the bench, while a shooter of some sort mans the off-guard position. Likely candidates for that job include senior Casey Mitchell, who played limited minutes in his first season in Morgantown as a JuCo transfer, or sophomore Dalton Pepper, who played even more limited minutes in his freshman season. Both, however, have the reputation of great shooters, even if their percentages in their initial seasons didn’t quite match up to their billing. Rounding out the starting five could be senior forward John Flowers, a glue guy that is as outstanding defensively as he is average offensively.  

Other returning depth for the Mountaineers is highlighted by sophomore power forward Dan Jennings, a physically gifted frontcourt player who could turn into a future big-time contributor for this squad and senior wing Cam Thoroughman, a hustle guy with surprising athletic ability. Additionally, Huggins brought in a solid four-man recruiting class. Noah Cottrill, a 6’1 true point guard type, will have to wait his turn behind the veterans Mazulla and Bryant, but he is a good enough player to force his way onto the court. Kevin Noreen is a 6’10 power forward who fell into West Virginia’s lap after he was granted a release from his Letter of Intent to attend Boston College following their firing of head coach Al Skinner. Noreen is a very skilled big man who will likely see some minutes immediately; he has a polished offensive game, with post moves, a face-up game, a jumper out to about 18 feet and excellent hands. David Nyarsuk is a long and lean 7’1 center with a ton of upside, who may see a year or two of bench time (not to mention time in the weight room) before he meets his potential. And then there’s 6’7 forward Darrious Curry, an athletic lefty who is great in the open floor and has range out the three-point line.  

While a repeat Final Four run would certainly be a surprise for this Mountaineer team, this is certainly not a program that is going to fall off the map. There is enough talent here for an upper division Big East finish and a NCAA Tournament berth. Jones will have to get comfortable being “the guy” offensively, but a pair of healthy veteran point guards should ease that transition, as should the presence of a strong post force like Kilicli. If Pepper or Mitchell (or better yet, both) can step into the designated shooter role, while still playing the kind of defense that is demanded of a Huggins player, this has all the makings of a solid offensive team, and certainly Huggins will have this team competing on the defensive end on every possession. Their talent may have taken a hit (and how could it have not, with two players off to the NBA), but this is still a team that will make a splash nationally.

 


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shirley jones
10/04/2010 3:55pm

GERARD COLEMAN WILL BE DRAFTED

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