Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No. 23 West Virginia: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 26-11, 11-7 Big East (t-5th)

Key Losses: Joe Alexander (16.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Darris Nichols (10.7 ppg, 3.0 apg)

Key Returnees: Alex Ruoff (13.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Da'Sean Butler (12.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Joe Mazzula (5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg)

Newcomers: Devin Ebanks, Darryl Bryant, Kevin Jones, Cameron Payne, Dee Proby

Joe Alexander flourished in Bob Huggins system, going from relative unknown, even for the Big East, to the #8 pick in the NBA Draft and arguably the best player in the conference over the last month-plus of the season. If he had come back, West Virginia would be one of (if not the) favorite in the Big East, but even with Alexander in Milwaukee, the Mountaineers have a ton of talent returning.

The loss of Darris Nichols in the back court is going to hurt a bit, but junior Joe Mazzula proved that he is more than capable of handling the starting point guard role. At 6'2", Mazzula is strong and fast (he was a five-time all-state sprinter in high school), but also a very good decision maker. He doesn't turn the ball over much, can rebound well for his size, and is fine setting up his teammates. 6'6" senior Alex Ruoff also returns. Ruoff has always been a great spot-up shooter, but has added some slashing ability to his game. Freshman Darryl Bryant and sophomore Will Thomas should also see some minutes off the bench.

Even with Alexander gone the Mountaineers have a very good front court. The most proven player is junior Da'Sean Butler, WVU's third leading scorer last year. Butler is an athletic, 6'7" small forward that can do a little bit of everything - he can get to the basket from the perimeter, he can post up a smaller defender, he can knock down a three, he can rebound, he can defend. With Alexander gone, Butler could be poised for a big year. The most talented player in the front court is freshman Devin Ebanks, a top-15 recruit that Huggins signed late. Ebanks might as well be Alexander circa his freshman year - a 6'8", long, lanky, athletic wing that can score from the perimeter or in the post. His jump shot is a little better than Alexander's, as are his ball skills. Ebanks should have an immediate impact. Wellington Smith is another guy cut out of that exact same mold. A tremendous athlete (at 6'7", he had 60 blocks last year playing 20 mpg), he has put on about 45 pounds of muscle since landing in Morgantown, and should expect a big bump in playing time and production this year. Sophomores John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman played limited roles last year (Thoroughman much more limited than Flowers) but were both impressive when I did see them play, and newcomers Kevin Jones (a 6'9" freshman) and Dee Proby (a 6'10" JuCo transfer) should also get some minutes.

Outlook: WVU is not going to have a problem defending or rebounding (Huggy Bear's teams never do). They have a ton of size and a slew of athletes that they can throw at an opponent. The question this year is going to be who can score? Who can they give the ball to when they need a basket? Ruoff and Butler are talented players, but neither of them were really go-to scorers last year, and Ebanks, as talented as he is, has a tendency to disappear and not be assertive enough. Even without a go-to guy, the Mountaineers should be a top-8 team in the conference (which isn't as bad as it sounds).

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