Column - Upperclassmen lead WVU to success in toughest part of non-conference schedule
Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011
Updated: Sunday, December 11, 2011 23:12
Upperclassmen are expected to step up and make plays.
That's especially the case for the West Virginia men's basketball team.
With eight true freshmen on this season's roster, it has been even more important than usual for seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant and junior Deniz Kilicli to take charge not only as leaders for the young players but as playmakers who can come up big when the team needs them most.
Those three were able to do just that in the Mountaineers' last four games. Following a blowout victory over Morehead State in Charleston, WVU had games against Akron, No. 21 Mississippi State, Kansas State and Miami (Fla.).
All four of those teams are currently ranked in the top 100 of the RPI and could have a large impact on the Mountaineers' NCAA tournament resume when March rolls around, and the players said the same thing. The three leaders also said wins in the stretch would be huge for the confidence of this young team as it gets closer to Big East Conference play.
So, after going 3-1, including a road win in double overtime against Kansas State and a big second half to lead them to a double-digit win over Miami, what grade would the Mountaineers give themselves now that these four games are over with?
"A-minus," Kilicli said. "There were lots of ways it could have been better. We played good games against Akron and Kansas State, but there were five- to 10-minute periods in all of those games where we went down and we didn't guard well."
In all of the last four games, the three players who returned from last year's team did what they had to do to help keep the team in tough games.
Jones, Bryant and Kilicli have accounted for close to 68 percent of West Virginia's total points in those games.
And while those three stepped up and played better when they needed to, the rest of the team was also getting better and more confident. It looked at times as if we were seeing the Mountaineers grow up before our eyes.
It was a great contrast from the team that lost by 10 to Kent State in the Coliseum at the beginning of the season.
"We're starting to learn how to deal with adversity. We lost one on the road to Mississippi State but then turned around and won two big ones that we needed to win," Bryant said. "That put us right on track and our next game is next Saturday, and we've just got to get ready for that."
Gaining momentum like they did in the last four games is extremely important for this team with its first Big East game coming around in a little more than two weeks. And it's not the fact that the Mountaineers won these games that could help them the most.
Sometimes it's nice just to play good teams to see how the younger players will react.
"When they start the Big East, they're going to be like, ‘I've played players who are as good as this guy. I guarded the same type of guy a month ago,'" Huggins said.
"They're going to be more confident, and that gives us a lot of advantages. That's the great thing about our schedule."