WVU basketball: For Mountaineers to have success, freshmen will have big say
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- So far during their run in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club's Pro-Am summer league, a team of West Virginia University newcomers has turned a 24-point deficit in the first half into a 58-54 game and then played into overtime and lost 61-60 when a buzzer-beater went bad.
"That," said point guard and Dayton transfer Juwan State, "is growth."
And that, says just about everyone on that SteelCity-Tickets.com team, is what the league is about this summer. Oh, the kids - five freshmen, two college transfers and one sophomore who played all of 37 minutes last season - are 0-2 and have at times looked very worthy of the record.
While they really want to win the league, they're there for a greater purpose.
Just about each of the six players who are eligible for the upcoming season - 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Kevin Noreen and freshmen forwards Tommie McCune and Keaton Miles, point guard Gary Browne, guard/forward Aaron Brown and center Pat Forsythe - are going to need to contribute.
College teams get to put 13 players on scholarship. Staten and 6-10 LaSalle transfer Aaric Murray are among WVU's 13, but have to sit out the 2011-12 season. The Mountaineers are then left with 11, which is actually better than the nine they had for most of last season.
Simple math says the other six, plus freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds and junior college forward Dominique Rutledge, must complement seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant and junior Deniz Kilicli.
"Having this many new guys is almost unheard of," said the 6-7 McCune, from Saginaw, Mich. "You don't see it every day because it can be hard to play with so many freshmen, so it's pretty much like our backs are against the wall.
"But I hate to get embarrassed. The rest of the guys are the same way. We're going to work hard and learn to play together to help the team."
Take it a step further. If the next WVU team is to go places, the freshmen are going to have to have a say in it. The way the team is constructed, the way they're going to play with the floor spread and the Mountaineers slashing to the basket, it must be this way.
This is not news. This is why they're all together for the Pro-Am.
"Look at what happened to the Miami Heat," Miles said. "They're professional basketball players, but they needed time."
The seven-team league is a blessing for WVU - and it comes before the team gets together and practices in advance of the four or five games the Mountaineers will play in Italy next month.
High school seniors struggle with one thing above all others early in their college careers. The game is impossibly different.
The opponents are bigger and faster. The court feels smaller, by any measure, be it sideline-to-sideline, baseline-to-baseline or floor-to-rim. The windows through which you can run, shoot, dribble and pass close quickly. If you're not careful, confidence shrinks.
Just about everyone the freshmen are playing against at the Greentree SportsPlex was lifting weights and playing college games while the freshmen were worried about homecoming or ACT prep. Now they're on the fast track playing a valuable game of catch-up.
"Back home, I was competing in town against the guys who were still there," said Miles, who came to WVU from Dallas. "Now I have somebody who's more mature than me in the game of basketball and someone stronger guarding me and boxing me out.
"It's a learning experience we need as a unit. We need to get used playing with each other. We're a young team, as anybody can see."
Only those Mountaineers can see the changes. Only they know about the things they talk about before and after the games on the trips up and down I-79. Only they know the critiques they make in workouts. Only they know what they have right now.
"The guys we have have talent and they give us a good mix of guards and forward, guys who can score and play defense and rebound," said Brown, who is from Philadelphia. "Once we start to play together and get to know each other, I know everything will be much better."
The satisfaction isn't as immediate for Staten and Murray. Both have to sit out the upcoming season and do nothing but practice against their teammates, dress up for home games and watch from home for road games.
The summer league is a brief reprieve from their basketball bereavement.
"I was definitely psyched when I found out I could play," Staten said. "I was a little bit down having to sit out a full year, but coming out and knowing I'd get to play against some great players and fellow Big East players actually helped me out a lot."
Murray was an all-rookie player in the Atlantic 10 two years ago who grew uneasy with his place at LaSalle. He can still shoot a high percentage and rebound missed shots and block and alter others, but he'll have to wait until 2012.
In the meantime, it would be smart for Forsythe and Kilicli to take advantage of Murray's skill, which is good enough to get an invitation to Amar'e Stoudemire's big man camp in Chicago late last month.
Staten was, like Murray, a touted prep player who made a splash in college. He led the A-10 in assists as a freshman last year, but also learned to dislike his situation and sought change at WVU.
He'll sit next to Murray as they wait for the 2012-13 season, but he, too, can help. WVU has to get something significant from Browne and Hinds behind Bryant this season.
"With me being the point guard, I feel like it's my job to be the leader, especially with a year of college under my belt," Staten said. "I feel like I can help the freshmen here to get over the hump and show them a couple things they're going to need for the season."
Of course, this is about more than a summer spent preparing for the season. This is the core of the future of Coach Bob Huggins' program and it figures to be together at least two years and perhaps four. Some may leave along the way for either personal or professional reasons, but that's off in the distance.
Today is about tomorrow.
"It's probably too soon to say who's going to do what this season, but I think over time this is going be something special," McCune said. "To me, I can already see that. We're going to be something to see."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.