College Preseason Top 25: No. 10, West Virginia
The Mountaineers are ready for a run at the Big East title.
The Mountaineers have appeared in the Sweet 16 in three out of the last five seasons which makes this the most successful stretch of West Virginia basketball since Jerry West was still wearing the old gold and blue. Bob Huggins and Co. return essentially everyone from last year’s squad save for shooting guard Alex Ruoff who will of course be missed, but his scoring void will be filled easily by a group of very talented youngsters who now have a year under their belt. After finishing in the middle of the pack last season in the Big East, WVU has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top two or three in the upcoming season if everything clicks on the court.
What makes West Virginia so intriguing this year is the fact that they will have serious weapons both inside and on the perimeter. Senior small forward Da’Sean Butler is a top five returning scorer in the conference after averaging more than 17 ppg last season and was the team’s second leading rebounder as well. The New Jersey native is a super tough at 6-7 and packing 225 pounds, making him bigger and stronger than most perimeter defenders he will encounter at the collegiate level. Butler gets the majority of his shots off in spot up situations, but the Moutaineers run him off a fair number of screens as well. While he more often than not likes to catch and shoot – something he excels at – he is equally, if not more, dangerous when he decides to put the ball on the floor and attack. His smooth release allows him to pull up and connect off the dribble and his solid frame and length ensure that he finishes as a high rate in the lane. Add in a respectable perimeter shot and Butler has the chance to emerge as one of the elite all-around scorers in the country this upcoming season; conference favorite Villanova at least will think so after he dropped 43 points on them in February.
Sophomore guard Darryl Bryant emerged as a viable scoring option in the backcourt during his first season in Morgantown, topping 15 points in six different contests, including 21 in a first-round loss to Dayton in the NCAA Tournament. Like Butler, he likes to catch and shoot, although he doesn’t have the same ability to attack the basket at this point in his career. Still, the youngster is going to get increased scoring opportunities this year with Ruoff having departed and will likely see a bump in his numbers, especially if he continues to connect on perimeter shots at a respectable 38 percent like he did last year.
The big question though will be if Bryant is even on the court to get those scoring opportunities this season as both he and point guard Joe Mazzulla are currently suspended from all team activities and there are still questions as to whether or not Huggins will have the option of using either as a floor general come November. This could mean Butler seeing time running the show or possible one of two newcomers to the team, freshman Dalton Pepper or junior college transfer Casey Mitchell. Both are technically shooting guards, but don’t be shocked if they are tried out at the point, particularly Mitchell who is used to operating with the ball in his hands after a pair of strong seasons at JuCo power Chipola.
West Virginia’s frontcourt features tons of potential with the return of two lengthy forwards in Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones. Ebanks would have been a first round pick in this year’s draft had he opted to test the waters, instead he has the potential to emerge as one of the elite forwards in the conference after a freshman season that saw him post nine double-doubles and show tremendous flashes of potential. The combo-forward is extremely raw right now, relying mainly on his length and outstanding athleticism to get his points in transition and around the cylinder. He can take defenders off the dribble occasionally, but this facet of his game is still very much developing as is his perimeter shooting. Defensively the kid is a stud and can really alter a team’s offensive game plans with his leaping ability and great anticipation, he could really be the cog for West Virginia at this end of the floor. It certainly isn’t out of the question for the Brooklyn product to average a double-double this season, but Mountaineer fans should enjoy him this season as Ebanks is likely heading for the lottery in 2010.
Jones, like Ebanks, is a raw but intriguing forward who is developing his ability to operate on the perimeter, but gets his production from straight hustle at this point. The New York native played his best basketball down the stretch of the regular season, posting five straight games of double figure scoring, including a 19-point, 8-rebound showing against Louisville. He got the bulk of his points by finishing dump offs in the lane and grabbed nearly two offensive rebounds per game in less than 20 minutes on the floor; that’s productive.
The Mountaineers won’t have a ton of bulk in the lane, so don’t be surprised if freshman bigs Dan Jennings and Deniz Kilicli see a good amount of playing time from day one. Jennings is a wide body at 6-9, 240, who rebounds well and can take up space. Kilicli also sports a 6-9 frame, though he is a more of a finesse player with soft touch around the rim. These two, along with Jones and Ebanks will have to hit the glass hard in order to hang with some of the more physical teams in the conference.
This looks like the year for West Virginia to really make a big move not only in the Big East but on a national scale as well. Even with the potential for Bryant and Mazzulla to be out of action this season, the Mountaineers still return enough firepower to be a very good team. If those two are allowed back on the court and can work themselves into playing shape, fans in Morgantown can start dreaming about a conference championship come March.