It's been a slow build so far for the 2010-11 West Virginia University men's basketball squad. With one exhibition game, and one regular season game under its belt, there is still a lot to be learned about this Mountaineer team. Starting this morning at 11:30am, the Mountaineers will face their first real test as they hope to take home the crown from the Puerto Rico Tip-Off by winning three games in four days.
Today's match-up is against the Davidson Wildcats. WVU lost to Davidson two years ago at Madison Square Garden when the Wildcats were led by all-world guard Stefan Curry. Curry's departed the Davidson team, and with him went any hope of national relevance. The Wildcats finished 16-15 last season, and didn't participate in any post-season tournaments. Last season's leading scorers Jake Cohen, a 6-foot-10 forward, and JP Kuhlman, a 6-foot-4 guard, both return as sophomores to lead this year's squad. The Wildcats are big, but inexperienced. While they shouldn't present any glaring match-up problems for the Mountaineers, they won't wilt at the sight of Big East muscle. What the Mountaineers have in spades is experience. I expect WVU to stay composed throughout and play their brand of slow, defensive basketball. Young teams, like Davidson, tend to get frustrated when their offense gets disrupted. If that can turn into defensive stops for the Blue and Gold, then this game should stay low-scoring, which always favors the 'Eers.
If WVU wins this afternoon, they face the winner of the Nebraska-Vanderbilt game that immediately follows WVU's game. Odds are the Commodores from Vanderbilt will advance, and WVU will face them on Friday morning. Vanderbilt went 24-9 last season, and earned an NCAA tournament berth. Leading scorer Jermaine Beal has departed from Nashville, but the Commodores return a squad laden with depth and experience, which could prove the season's first real test for WVU. Should WVU win its first two games, the championship would be played against the winner from the other side of the field, which could be North Carolina, Minnesota, Western Kentucky or Hofstra. Though it's likely the Tar Heels will emerge, it's too soon to tell. Everyone all across the Appalachian mountains is rooting for a Bob Huggins-Roy Williams showdown this Sunday, and I know that's what I want to see.
As for the Mountaineers themselves, there still are a lot of kinks to be worked out, and I'll be watching for a similar list of things as from the season opener last weekend. I'm most fascinated by the battle for minutes at the two guard spot. Both Jonnie West and Casey Mitchell have gotten white-hot at moments in the young season, and Dalton Pepper shows that he's developed a more well rounded game. While I anticipate Huggs to ride the hot hand, right now I have no idea who that might be. It keeps it interesting.
I'm also interested in seeing how John Flowers can blossom into a shutdown defender. He was tenacious last weekend against Oakland, tallying seven blocks and a steal, while generally playing like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four. I'm sure that guy would be a hell of a shot-blocker too. From the rest of the forwards, I'd like to see improved defense and ball-handling out of Deniz Kilicli, and I'd like to get Kevin Jones involved. By all accounts, Jones is this team's best player and his ho-hum performance can mostly be attributed to no plays being run specifically for him. While his consistency is to be applauded, I would love to see Jones break out in Puerto Rico and firmly plant his name among the nation's elite players.
All in all, I fully expect a Mountaineer victory this afternoon. The 11:30am tip-off in the middle of the work week makes it hard for many people to catch this game. If I follow up in the afternoon with a game recap, don't tell my boss. I was working all afternoon. I swear.