WVU’s tourney success depends on youth
MORGANTOWN -- By now, Kevin Jones knows the parts that surround him as the centerpiece of the fifth consecutive West Virginia University men's basketball team to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
So take the senior's word when he speaks about what he sees when games get late and the score gets tight, sometimes in tandem, and the Mountaineers enter that frustratingly familiar place where they've lost so many games this season.
The youngest and most inexperienced parts of this team that faces Gonzaga on Thursday at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center are still not comfortable in those situations.
"A little bit of panic and worry on their faces, like, 'Oh, no, here we go again.' That kind of face," Jones said. "I tell the guys to calm down, the game's not over, just to get those guys settled down, but when you have freshmen, they tend to worry a lot, especially when a team starts getting back in the game."
The Mountaineers (19-13) are seeded 10th in the East region and play seventh-seeded Gonzaga (25-6) at 7:20 p.m. in a game televised on TNT. They enter the tournament with the distinction of having the lowest RPI and fewest wins and are tied for the most losses for an at-large team. Yet WVU was rewarded for its schedule and slate of 19 games against teams in the RPI top 100, to say nothing of the nine wins.
"I think the crazy thing is, think if we would have won some of the ones we should have won," Coach Bob Huggins said.
The Mountaineers lost five games they once led by at least 10 points. They lost six games that they led with five minutes to go. They lost eight games by seven or fewer points.
Again and again, WVU would have an untimely scoring drought or string of turnovers or stretch of shaky defense - and sometimes those overlapped. At the worst and occasionally most unlikely times, the Mountaineers would go away from all the things that had worked well to lead or to be in a game and couldn't get back in time to win.
"I don't think it defines this season," Jones said. "What defines this season is having a bunch of freshmen and guys who have never played before. We have three returning guys with any experience, so I think we still need to work hard and try to make the right decisions. What's hurt us for the most part is how hard we've played."
Jones scored 25 points in the first 34 minutes of last week's Big East Tournament second-round overtime loss to Connecticut. He had no points in the final 11 minutes and took just three shots, and only when he took it upon himself in the final 90 seconds.
"Coach ran a couple plays for me, which some of my teammates weren't able to find me in the right spots," Jones said.
Huggins was more blunt and said he had freshmen that didn't know what they were doing and lost their heads as WVU lost the game. Even in the 32nd game, the Mountaineers were compromised by their youth.
"There are only so many things you can do in basketball," Huggins said. "It really comes down to a couple things because you can't hardly get more than three guys involved in a play. You've just got to figure out how to get the other three guys out of the way. It's all about numbers and trying to get 2-on-1, 3-on-2, 4-on-3. There's only so many ways to do that."
The Mountaineers won't use their youth as explanation. Not against Gonzaga, which, like WVU, features freshmen. Kevin Pangos leads the team in scoring (13.9), Gary Bell, Jr., is the top 3-point shooter (47.5 percent) and Ryan Spangler helps off the bench. Spangler was Oklahoma's player of the year last year and a Parade Magazine All-American.
And like the Mountaineers, Gonzaga has a valuable junior college player in Guy Landry Edi, who averages 5.6 points and 17.1 minutes per game and started 13 times this season.
WVU typically starts freshmen Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles and uses freshmen Gary Browne and Aaron Browne off the bench. Junior college transfer Dominique Rutledge has only started playing regularly - and well - the past few games.
"They're sophomores," senior Truck Bryant said. "They aren't freshmen anymore, so we might as well classify themselves as sophomores."
That may be case, or the spin, but there is another truth with which the Mountaineers must deal. All these new parts may be experienced enough now to know what to do, even as WVU changes some stuff in practice and puts in new ideas because old ones weren't good enough. They're still about to take on a whole new experience in the NCAA Tournament.
There's the atmosphere, the pep bands, the longer television timeouts and a bunch of other factors that make this different from the rest of the season, but for WVU, it is still an opportunity.
"Even if we had a bad season," Browne said, "right now is the time to show people that all the games we gave away, we're going to get them back."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org/wvu. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.