WVU's Bryant is focused again
MORGANTOWN - Basketball players are taught and eventually learn how to do all sorts of things ... how to handle a fullcourt press and attack a 2-3 zone, how to pump-fake a shot blocker and force a left-handed dribbler to the right.
This is all stuff they just know how to do, to the point a coach doesn't need to call a timeout and ask players to think about what they were told. Instead, they just do it.
At the highest and most efficient level, basketball is played by reactors and not thinkers.
And this is why players, even veteran players like West Virginia guard Truck Bryant, are prone to shooting slumps.
A junior who has logged 95 games, 757 shots and countless hours in the gym, Bryant hit a rut this past month like nothing he'd ever experienced, like nothing he'd ever extricated himself from as a Mountaineer.
On Jan. 1, Bryant scored a career-high 25 points in a loss at Marquette. He was 9-for-18 from the floor and matched a personal best with four 3-pointers in six attempts. In the next 13 games and 44 days, he admitted, "I felt like I haven't been helping the team in any ways."
Bryant shot a combined 25-for-106 and missed 37 of 46 3-point attempts. He never made more than three shots or one 3-pointer and was in double figures just four times - and he needed to make six, seven, five and four free throws those days.
"Mentally and physically," he said, "I was stressed out."
This wasn't just basketball, either. Quietly, Bryant confessed he was distracted by "something else going on in my life." A cousin was going through a personal matter, which is all Bryant cares to divulge.
"It was real serious, but stuff happens like that sometimes," he said. "It was definitely on my mind a lot. He's someone who helps me a lot. It's all fine now, but I still think about it a lot."
The brain might as well be five Hasheem Thabeets lining up against you. It can interfere and alter just about anything, even the things that the most veteran players are conditioned to handle.
Bryant became a lot like a lot of his peers. More often than not, players are bothered because they're bothered.
The concern for his cousin and the struggles with shooting were getting to him. No matter how long Bryant was in a gym, no matter how many shots he made before he left, he couldn't get right.
What was once second nature became a five-alarm problem.
"That's the hardest part," he said. "That's the reason why I was struggling. I'd make shots before practice and when I was warming up for the game, I'd get extra shots up in the gym, and nothing."
Nothing, as in nothing changed. Bryant didn't let up so easily. Neither he nor those around him would let that happen.
"I told him what I told everyone else: Working hard doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you a heck of a lot better chance," Coach Bob Huggins said. "You've got to get in and shoot the ball.
"We all get tired of watching misses. They get tired of watching them as much as we do, but you've got to keep shooting until you get back in the groove. The more you shoot, the better the chances you shoot it well."
Bryant obliged. The game did not. It was cruel and sure seemed to be playing Bryant that way.
Every game, Bryant laced up his Nikes and started for the Mountaineers, thinking that would be the day the slump would come to a merciful end. And on most of the days, the game gave him a reason to think he was absolutely right, that everything he'd believed in wouldn't let him down one more time.
"I always make the first shot," he said. "That's the weird thing."
In those 13 games, he was 7-for-13 on his first shot and 5-for-10 from 3-point range. In the final five games, when the drought became an increasingly bigger deal and the Mountaineers needed him to help them out of their struggles, Bryant made his first shot four times. Three of those were 3-pointers.
He'd catch the ball, line it up and let it go and think the bad vibes were going with it as the ball slipped through the net.
In the shots that followed those first shots in those five games, Bryant was 3-for-29.
In the end, the makes were fake, false positives for a kid who needed something positive, but wasn't sure what to believe.
All of that makes what he did Saturday, the 14th game on the 48th day, even more remarkable. Bryant missed his first shot against No. 8 Notre Dame and then another from 3-point range amid audible groans from the friendly WVU Coliseum fans.
He shuffled into the locker room lugging an 0-for-4 day with him.
If the past were any precedent, if Bryant had been learned nothing during his slide, it was that Saturday would not be his day.
"That didn't help me at all," he said. "When you're missing shots, that's the only thing you're thinking about."
Bryant then made 5 of 7 shots in the second half, including four 3s in six attempts, and scored 20 points as the Mountaineers (17 9, 8-6 Big East) followed his lead to win, 72-58.
"It's been a struggle sometimes and other times I feel good," he said. "It's been up and down, just like everyone else this season."
He'd like to stay up and avoid another down as WVU readies for a rematch at No. 4 Pitt on Thursday night. The results may have changed Saturday. What follows, he said, will not.
"I've got to keep working on it," he said. "That's an everyday thing with me. The one thing I want to do now is get up a lot of shots for repetition, so I can keep this going."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.