There has been so much going on with the West Virginia University football program that very little has been discussed in this space about the WVU basketball team. At the risk of putting the ole jinx on the Mountaineers I will have to say the team is coming along quite nicely.
Coming into the season expectations were not particularly high among most fans. Nine of the 12 roster spots were first year players. That would be one junior college transfer and eight freshmen. The schedule going into the season looked to be one of the toughest in college basketball. Even the most optimistic fan of the gold and blue would have a difficult time figuring out how this team could make a fifth straight appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament in March.
The tough schedule figured to be one thing the Mountaineers could use to find their way into the tournament. The thinking was that the young Mountaineers would struggle early, but if the freshmen developed and the team played well in February that a 19, or possibly even an 18 win season could get the Mountaineers an invite to the big dance.
Well, 20 games into the season and with 11 to go, Bob Huggins has his team sitting at 15-5 and 5-2 in the Big East after an overtime win over Cincinnati last Saturday. Huggins may not say so, but one has to believe he is surprised to have his team where it is. Even scarier is that WVU let close games against Baylor and Connecticut slip away in the last minute.
To get to this point, West Virginia has ridden senior Kevin Jones’ absolute phenomenal season thus far. Jones is averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 rebounds. Averaging a double-double is big league and the talking heads have noticed. Virtually every time his name comes up he is mentioned as the favorite for the Big East Player of the Year award. Jones is a great story too. He’s not blessed with the natural ability that so many other highflying athletes possess. Jones has put in the work to get himself where he is and watching him outsmart and outwork opponents for rebounds is special.
Of course Jones hasn’t won 15 games all by himself. Fellow senior Truck Bryant has had a strong campaign in his first season as the full time two guard, averaging 17.5 points per game. Bryant still has some consistency problems, and he is coming off a poor performance against Cincinnati when he was 2-16 from the field and scored just six points. The good news is WVU still won the game with Bryant having a sub par game.
The only other Mountaineer to average double figures is junior Deniz Kilicli with 11.1 points per game. The native of Istanbul is still struggling to find a level of consistency. His playing time has been hurt by foul troubles, but when he’s right he is very effective. Getting, and keeping, Kilicli and Bryant into form for the final 11 games could turn the season into a very special one.
We certainly can’t ignore the contributions of the freshmen. Huggins keeps them all on a pretty short leash, but the results have been promising. Virtually every game at least one makes a significant contribution. Point guards Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne have been coming on fast. Hinds had a great game against Marshall last week and leads the team with 73 assists. Browne is second with 60. Both players can score as well. It was Browne’s three pointer at the end of regulation against Cincinnati that sent the game to overtime Saturday.
Keaton Miles has been a starter this season for his defensive ability and Aaron Browne comes off the bench for his offensive production. The last freshman to get regular minutes is 6-10 Kevin Noreen who got to start last Wednesday against Marshall when Kilicli had to sit out with a sprained ankle. Noreen is a smart player that is not as comfortable on the court as he will become with some more of Huggins’ coaching.
The schedule continues to be demanding with road games looming at St. Johns, Syracuse, Providence, Pitt, Notre Dame and South Florida. Even with a 5-6 finish WVU gets to 20 wins, but don’t think for a minute that a 20-win season is a lock.