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WVU basketball: Season of highs and lows

TAMPA, Fla. - West Virginia didn't defend its 2010 Big East Tournament championship very long. It didn't return to the NCAA Final Four for a second straight season, or even get out of the first weekend, for that matter.

After Saturday's season-ending the loss to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, once the heads were lifted from hands and the tears were cleared away, it was clear to see the Mountaineers didn't do the things many expected them to do.

And that's quite an achievement.

"A lot of people didn't pick us to be where we are midway through the season," WVU forward Cam Thoroughman said. "When there was all that doom and gloom, we could have packed it in and went home, but we didn't. We battled through it and it made us all better basketball players and better people.

"I'm really proud of everybody. Nobody went crazy. We all just stuck together and got through it together. I don't want to say it's an

accomplishment to make it this far because we're going home, but I am glad we got this far."

The Mountaineers made a fourth straight NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1955-60. They got there this season after losing Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith to graduation and Devin Ebanks to the NBA and, in reality, adding no one.

Of the freshman recruiting class, three of the four players never put on a uniform for WVU. Only Kevin Noreen remains, and he took a medical redshirt after knee surgery early in the season. The returning players were either forced fits or guys who had issues throughout the season, including Dan Jennings, who literally walked away from the team during a game in January.

At the end of Saturday's game, Jonnie West was thrown in to make a 3-pointer. West wasn't even with the team when it started practice in the fall.

Thoroughman was, in essence, the team's center. He was recruited as a guard.

Casey Mitchell was suspended in the preseason and then in the middle of the season. Despite an extraordinary start to the season, he became an ordinary reserve the final half of the season.

John Flowers evolved into a surprisingly reliable shooter and scorer and was the team's best defender, but throughout the season he couldn't stay out of foul trouble.

Kevin Jones had about the same stats this season as he had last season, except he didn't shoot the ball nearly as well and missed the presence of Butler, Smith and Ebanks as much as anyone else.

Dalton Pepper and Deniz Kilicli had their moments, but not often in close proximity. Pepper had only four double-digit scoring games. Two were the first two games of the season.

Kilicli had a few good games but asked to be moved out of the starting lineup in the middle of the season and couldn't be a consistent option in the post the Mountaineers needed.

Truck Bryant went through a lengthy shooting slump, but finished the season better than he played most of it. Joe Mazzulla willed himself to become a scoring threat, but was more comfortable as a defender and facilitator.

And yet the Mountaineers won 21 games, beat five ranked teams, were ranked No. 22 in the final regular-season poll, earned a bye in the Big East Tournament and were seeded fifth in the NCAA East Region. They did it all with major personnel shifts in the middle of the season and one all-conference level player - and Jones was just an honorable mention selection.

"Personally, I like to deal with adversity and I actually think it was good for us," Mazzulla said. "I think this is an accomplishment and more than people gave us credit for. Because of the adversity, we turned into a much better team. It's unfortunate we found our identity so late."

After losing to Marshall, 75-71, WVU went six games without scoring 70 points, the longest such streak since 2005. Mitchell was suspended Jan. 24 for three games and Mazzulla joined the starting lineup.

Gradually, WVU became a tidier offensive team with Mazzulla and Bryant playing together. The Mountaineers passed the ball better and the offense was a little more effective, even though it put the only ball-handlers on the floor together, which Coach Bob Huggins initially resisted.

By the end of the regular season, the Mountaineers were playing what they thought was their best basketball of the season and beat ranked Notre Dame, Connecticut and Louisville and unranked Rutgers on the road in the final five games.

"We had some inner-team issues that we needed to figure out, but we had our moments," Jones said. "We had moments when we looked like a really good team and we had moments when we looked like a really bad team."

WVU was haunted by uneven performances, right until the very end. A 41-33 lead at halftime against the Wildcats was gone after the first 3:05 of the second half. Kentucky outscored WVU, 38-22, after halftime. That happened to WVU 16 other times, with 13 coming after the start of Big East play.

Twenty-two of the final 23 opponents scored more points in the second half than they did in the first.

"We never consistently played the same way," Jones said. "We were either really good or really bad. Consistency is what we need to be a good team."

The Mountaineers weren't a great offensive team and had a major problem with scoring droughts, but across the season the statistics were fairly even. They shot 43.4 percent in the first half and 42.4 percent in the second half. They averaged 33.3 points in the first half and 36.5 in the second.

The defense was the culprit, though. Opponents shot 35.2 percent and averaged 28.2 points in the first half, but jumped to 47 percent and 35.9 points in the second half.

"It was an up and down season for us and we need to fix that next year," Bryant said.

That will be a challenge. WVU loses Mazzulla, Thoroughman, West, Flowers and Mitchell to graduation and Jones could enter the NBA Draft. He and Bryant would be the only seniors next season. WVU has signed five high school seniors and a junior college transfer is committed to join next season, but none are renowned shooters.

"I think this should help them," Mazzulla said. "I told them we learned a lot this year and they have to learn from it and try not to let it happen again. The returning guys have got to carry it over now to help those freshmen."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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