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The Mountaineers easily dispatched the American University Eagles in a game that was fairly entertaining, despite not being that competitive.
First off, it was great to be back in the Coliseum. I can't say enough good things about the experience the team gets playing in early season tournaments like the trip to Puerto Rico, but it's a drag going two weeks without a home game. That said, the rest of Morgantown didn't seem so excited, and the game drew a sleepy crowd of just over seven thousand. Those who did make the trip were treated to a game where we found out that Casey Mitchell's scoring is going to be a theme, there's a battle for minutes at forward, and Huggins can actually look relaxed on the sidelines from time to time.
Mitchell led the Mountaineers with 27 points and it's becoming obvious that his role on this team is to be the go-to scorer. What's amazing about Mitchell's point total this evening was that he only hit one three. The other 24 points came inside (and at the free throw line, where he continues to excel) and showed the continued development of Mitchell's ability to create for himself. American defenders chose to guard Mitchell very tight on the perimeter and he responded by showing that he would take any shot he was given, relying primarily on his mid-range game. After a tumultuous year and a half, it appears Casey Mitchell has finally arrived as a consistent force on the basketball court.
In the battle for minutes at back-up forward, Kevin Noreen and Danny Jennings got to audition for one half each. In the first half, Jennings saw seven minutes of action, turning in three offensive rebounds and an arena-shaking dunk where he practically tore the rim from the board. In the second half, it was the freshman, Noreen, who made the biggest impact. Admittedly, he got to do it in garbage time, but that kid displays hustle and grit every time he hits the court. Noreen finished with four points, four boards, and three fouls. If he can do that in nine minutes or less every game this season, he'll make an impact for this team.
Other random observations:
The West Virginia University Men's basketball season is only five games old, and right now the Mountaineers seem to have more questions than answers.
The Mountaineers' 4-1 record is nothing to be ashamed of, with a quality victory against Vanderbilt and hard-fought defeat against Minnesota, both in Puerto Rico. In between, they hammered Davidson, Oakland, and most recently VMI on a "neutral court" in Charleston, WV. Nothing that has been shown this season seems too out of place and, for the most part, WVU is playing early-season basketball. It's not pretty, but it's getting the job done. For now.
Tonight the Mountaineers face an American University team that, despite being 5-1, might as well be the Washington Generals. Tonight's tilt is going to be all about what the Mountaineers can find out about themselves. Casey Mitchell, suspended before the season, has exploded into the team's leading scorer averaging more than twenty points a game. Despite filling the scorebooks, Mitchell is a streaky shooter who never met a shot he didn't like. He gets white-hot, but then delivers a series of bricks before finding his touch again. Over the last two games, he's shown the ability to penetrate and try and create inside looks for himself and his shooting touch seems to extend to mid-range runners, as well. If Mitchell can deliver on his complete game, the Mountaineers may have found their go-to scorer for this season.
The guy everyone expected to shoulder the load, Kevin Jones, hasn't played poorly this season but hasn't delivered on any of the expectations. Jones just looks uncomfortable, and is shooting a paltry 43% from the field and a pathetic 25% from beyond the arc. Still, he's managed to average 12 points and six rebounds per game. Jones took a long time to get going in the last contest against VMI, but he did manage to finish with a season high 22 points, so things could be heading in the right direction.
If Kevin Jones has only figuratively disappeared this season, Truck Bryant and Danny Jennings have literally disappeared. Not technically suspended from the team, Bryant and Jennings didn't dress against VMI. More bizarrely, they also appeared to have been made to find their own way to the game in Charleston, arriving to the bench midway through the first half. It's not entirely clear what caused their absence, but Huggins did have this to say:
"We're not making the progress we need to make," Huggins said.
"We don't go hard everyday. We've got guys all the time that want to take practices off and not go hard, and don't want to listen.
"We're not going to do that under my watch. I'm going to play the guys and coach the guys that want to get better and listen. We're going to do things right. I want to coach guys who want to learn."
It's not clear when Bryant and Jennings will return to the floor, or if their absence will extend deeper into the season. I would argue that Bryant is this team's most important player. Getting him to a point where he is a leader on this team, not simply a contributor, has to be at the top of the agenda early on in this season.
In the odd shuffle of a game plan that Huggins had to go with against the Keydets, he did unearth a gem in Kevin Noreen. Noreen, a lanky freshman forward from Minnesota, had only played six minutes thus far this season and was expected by many, myself included, to be a project player who would languish on the bench. In 14 minutes against VMI, Noreen displayed the kind of hustle you can infer that Huggs wants to see out of Danny and Truck. Noreen dove all over the court and managed to drop in seven points and grab five rebounds. This kid has shown that he's willing to do what it takes to contribute right away in a Bob Huggins-coached system. I'm not suggesting that he's going to leap into the starting lineup, but I do expect to see more of the freshman tonight against American.
Finally, the Mountaineers return home after only one contest so far this season in the friendly confines of the Coliseum. It's been over two weeks since the season kicked off against Oakland, but it doesn't really begin to pick up steam until December. I'm excited, and will be in the house as usual. See you after the game with my thoughts from section 53.