WVU men's basketball: Jonnie West is back in the mix
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The newest player on West Virginia's basketball team is also one of its most veteran players.
Jonnie West returned to the Mountaineers two weeks ago, five months after revealing at the 2009-10 team's end-of-the-year banquet that he planned to skip his final year of eligibility to pursue a master's degree.
While West left the team, the fifth-year senior - his legendary father, Jerry, is WVU's all-time leading scorer - never was really gone. He lives with teammate Cam Thoroughman and couldn't help but hang around Joe Mazzulla, another fifth-year player, senior John Flowers and Thoroughman.
When he wasn't with them or working on his business administration studies, West was in the gym and watching his former team practice.
From time to time, the Mountaineers would goof on West and make light of his retirement and his inability to pull himself away from the team. It didn't take long for the active Mountaineers to begin calling him "Brett" - as in notorious flip-flopper Brett Favre.
Silently, though, everyone was thinking the same thing.
Maybe he'd come back.
"I thought about it because I was always around at the beginning of the season, but at that point, it was really just a joke," he said. "I was at practice and guys were joking with me and I'd say something like, 'If someone goes down, give me a call.' "
West really wasn't joking.
One day, with senior Casey Mitchell suspended and freshman Noah Cottrill not practicing, with freshman forward Darrious Curry medically disqualified and freshman center David Nyarsuk playing at Mountain State University, the Mountaineers were left with nine scholarship players.
It was hardly the conditions Coach Bob Huggins wanted to develop a team that last season reached the Final Four for the first time in 51 years.
Mitchell, who returned from his suspension two weeks ago, and Cottrill, who last Friday was suspended indefinitely, are guards.
So, too, is West, and that was obvious to no one more than Huggins. There arrived a point where Huggins could no longer contain his curiosity and asked West about returning.
"Coach talked to me one day and we actually talked for a while," West said. "He pretty much said, 'We're going to need you.'"
There wasn't much need for convincing.
"Jonnie loves this state and he loves this basketball program," Huggins said. "He was watching every practice, so he knew what was going on. He knew what our needs were and he was very receptive. There didn't have to be any arm-twisting. He was ready to go."
He'll be that way for tonight's exhibition at 7 at the WVU Coliseum. The Mountaineers, who were predicted to finish fifth in the Big East in the preseason coaches' poll, play host to Division II UNC Pembroke.
The Braves are coached by Ben Miller, whose father, Eldon Miller, was the Ohio State coach who took Huggins on as a graduate assistant from 1978-80. Eldon Miller is a Pembroke assistant.
West will play. He wasn't brought back to be a warm body or an extra presence in practice.
"I have a different attitude about it now," West said. "I want to help. I saw a pretty good opportunity to do that and to play and that was one of the things Coach talked to me about. He told me, 'You're going to have an opportunity to play.'"
Playing time had been scarce for West his first three seasons. He played in 54 games (23, 11 and 20) and averaged 3.0 minutes. The 6-foot-3 West has scored 72 points and made 15 of 42 3-point attempts. West was physically limited, though, and struggled to reach 200 pounds before last season.
Now, though, with 6-8, 260-pound Danny Jennings, 6-8, 260-pound Kevin Jones and 6-9, 270-pound Deniz Kilicli in the front court, the Mountaineers planning to use three guards with two big bodies. Mazzulla, Truck Bryant, Dalton Pepper, Mitchell and West are the only active guards on scholarship. There are opportunities for West.
Thus far, he hasn't disappointed.
"Jonnie's actually probably been better than what he was before," Huggins said. "You can get a lot done by knowing how to get things and he's done things. Jonnie understands what we want done and how it needs to be done.
"And not that he didn't know before, but his biggest thing before was a lack of strength. He got overpowered at times. But we're a different team now. We've got Danny and Deniz in there and we've got a backstop we didn't have before."
The Mountaineers have four seniors in Mazzulla, Thoroughman, Flowers and Mitchell, but West jumps right to the front of the line of leader.
"He's definitely one of the leaders of this team," Jones said. "Just for him to return was a big boost for us in that regard. He knows what he's doing. He's been around a long time."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.