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September 23, 2008
The Mountaineers have confidence in the starting backcourt. Joe Mazzulla is ready to take over at point guard for veteran Darris Nichols. Mazzulla, a left-hander, played in all 37 games last season and averaged 18.5 minutes. He posted 5.8 points and 2.3 assists per game with a respectable assist-to-turnover ratio (1.63-to-1). He takes care of the ball, and he can get in the lane and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Mazzulla played well in the summer in the Pittsburgh Pro-Am League, which includes players from Pittsburgh, Robert Morris and Duquesne.
West Virginia is looking for bigger things from guard Joe Mazzulla.
The leading returning scorer for the Mountaineers is senior Alex Ruoff, one of the best perimeter shooters in the nation. He ranked third in the Big East in 3-pointers made per game (2.6) and second in 3-point percentage (41.0). He also led WVU in steals. Ruoff will need to pick up some of the scoring slack created by the departure of forward Joe Alexander, and he's capable. But he'll need to be better in big games. In WVU's 11 losses, 10 of which came to NCAA tournament teams, he averaged just 11.2 points and shot 39.8 percent. In the Mountaineers' 26 wins, Ruoff averaged 15 points and shot a sizzling 51.4 percent.
There will be a scramble to develop depth in the backcourt, mainly because Nichols led the team in minutes played (34.6 per game). There are four more guards on the roster, two sophomores who contributed little last season and two freshmen. Cam Thoroughman and freshman Darryl Bryant, a three-star prospect, will be the first options off the bench.
The Mountaineers are as loaded up front as they are thin in the backcourt. The leader is junior Da'Sean Butler, an athletic wing who can shoot from the outside and finish at the rim. He was second on the team in rebounding, behind Alexander, and he led WVU in field-goal percentage (49.5). In fact, only two players in the Big East (Georgetown's Austin Freeman and Pittsburgh's Sam Young) attempted more 3-pointers than Butler and still finished in the top 15 in the conference in shooting. As with Ruoff, Butler will be expected to help compensate for Alexander's early departure to the NBA.
Junior Wellington Smith should crack the starting lineup this season. He played in all 37 games a year ago and averaged 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and a team-leading 1.6 blocks. Those aren't bad numbers when you consider he played only 20 minutes per game. Smith has added significant weight and muscle to his 6-7 frame and could be ready for a breakout season.
Five-star prospect Devin Ebanks probably will be the other starter. He was the No. 11 overall prospect in the class of 2008 and the No. 2 small forward. At 6-9, he can shoot over smaller defenders. If matched up with bigger, slower opponents, he'll simply put the ball on the floor and go past them. His teammates already say he's the best leaper on the team, and he is capable of playing solid defense.
Don't discount four-star prospect Kevin Jones, either. He was one of the best players in the Pittsburgh Pro-Am League, and the coaches believe he'll be an immediate factor on the boards - if not in the scoring department.
Junior college transfer Dee Proby, a 6-10 post player, also will see some minutes.
The Mountaineers will run out and look to score in transition. Otherwise, they'll run a motion offense and hit the offensive glass hard.
Coach Bob Huggins is a man-to-man proponent, but he also played some matchup zone last season. There were times when he used the 1-3-1 zone that predecessor John Beilein put in the season before. But with more depth and athleticism, expect the Mountaineers to stick more to man.
Shoes to Fill
F Joe Alexander. He had a breakthrough season under Huggins, averaging 16.9 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Must Step Up
Mazzulla. There are weapons all around. With solid point guard play, the Mountaineers remain just as dangerous as last season's team - which knocked off Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Mazzulla is the only point man on the roster with significant experience. He has to deliver.
Ebanks. The coaches truly believe all four of the newcomers will see significant minutes. Ebanks, though, should start from Day One and contend for Big East Rookie of the Year honors.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.