Future bright for Mountaineers
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The loss to Kentucky in an NCAA tournament third-round game Saturday wasn't just West Virginia's final game of the season. It was the end of the careers of six seniors -- four of whom have played a large role in the Mountaineers' recent run of success.
Given the returning talent and some of the recruits coming in, the Mountaineers aren't likely to fall too far down in the Big East's pecking order next year.
A trio of returning players -- Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and Truck Bryant -- combined for 73 starts this year and all played a key role in the regular rotation.
Jones (13.1 ppg) and Bryant (10.9 ppg) were full-time starters and the team's second- and third-leading scorers. Jones led the team in rebounding (7.4 rpg) while Bryant was second in assists (92) and led the team in steals (26).
West Virginia also has a fourth player -- sophomore Dalton Pepper -- who emerged as a key role player late in the season and made three key steals in the second-round win against Clemson.
The Mountaineers also have six players coming in the recruiting class, including four-star power forward Tommie McCune.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins knows the group of seniors he is losing is a special group, not because they were overly talented, but because they seemed to maximize their talent and overachieve.
That group includes Joe Mazzula, Casey Mitchell, John Flowers, Jonnie West and Cam Thoroughman, but Mazzula is the one who epitomizes the hustle and heart of this group.
Mazzula had shoulder surgery that wiped out most of his 2008-09 season and he spent a year of long, hard rehabilitation to get back onto the court last year.
When he first started playing again last year, the left-hander struggled to shoot and had to try to shoot free throws with his opposite (right) hand.
But right before the Big East Conference tournament last year he began to get healthy and he played a huge role in the run to the Final Four. As a team leader this year, he ran the point again and nearly led the Mountaineers to an upset of Kentucky. He scored a team-high 20 points and the Wildcats couldn't guard him in the first half.
Huggins said the fact that Mazzula was even on the court was a testament to his work ethic and desire and it was a characteristic the whole group of seniors had.
"It is hard for anybody to understand what Joe's been through," Huggins said. "He woke up every day for the better part of a year not knowing whether he'd ever play basketball again. He didn't actually know whether he would be able to get his arm above his shoulder. I don't think anybody will ever realize the time he spent in the training room, the rehab that he did. It took him almost two years to be able to play again, a lot of people wouldn't have done that.
"I think the thing that can be said for all of these guys is they compete, you know, step up to the plate and compete. They're good people who are going to be very successful in whatever it is that they choose to do."
If the Mountaineers are going to continue to compete at a high level, they will have to score more consistently and find another go-to player in the mold of last year's star Da'Sean Butler.
Huggins said that was what made this season tough -- the Mountaineers had to run their offense perfectly and get open shots in order to score. When that broke down, they didn't have a player capable of bailing them out like Butler did.
Next year's roster doesn't appear to have that player, either, though Jones has developed into a much better shooter and Kilicli has a bevy of post moves and hook shots that make him tough to guard in the post.
First Published March 22, 2011 12:00 am