For West Virginia, 2011-12 Hopes Rest With Shortlist Of Returners

The 2009-10 college basketball season may forever be remembered for Butler-Duke, but for the length of the year, one of the most exciting teams to watch was West Virginia. Da’Sean Butler was the senior star of that squad, and he made sure we all tuned in because we never knew when he’d drain another game-winning shot. The clutch Butler carried the Mountaineers to the Final Four that year where they eventually lost to Duke. Though the game itself was rather forgettable, it did produce one of the sport’s most heart-wrenching moments of the year when WVU coach Bob Huggins consoled an injured Butler on the court after the player’s college career came to an end before the final whistle.

Last season, we learned just how swift change can come about in college basketball. One of the most memorable teams of the year before was but a minor blip in 2010-11. Sure, the Mountaineers did enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but they were far from the spotlight in the Big East and lacked any individual star power. When the team was in the headlines, it was often for the wrong reasons. Senior Casey Mitchell dealt with suspensions, freshman Noah Cottrill left the school before ever playing, and sophomore Danny Jennings famously quit the team in the middle of a game. On the court, sophomore big man Deniz Kilicli never asserted himself as a dominant force in his first full season, and junior Kevin Jones, while solid, didn’t see his numbers spike much from the prior year despite playing a bigger role.

While Kilicli and Jones will be around in 2011-12, the Mountaineers do lose a few players who helped keep them afloat last year. While the aforementioned Mitchell was oft-suspended, he did make a difference on the court and ended the year as the team’s leading scorer. The tough Joe Mazzula also used up his eligibility, as did steady contributors John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman. Dalton Pepper will also be gone as he recently announced he would transfer. All together, West Virginia retains only three of its eight regular rotation players from last season.

While there will be new players waiting in the wings to help the team get to a fifth-straight NCAA Tournament, West Virginia’s level of success will likely hinge on the steps taken by those three returners. Jones wisely decided to return to Morgantown for his senior year after flirting with the NBA, and it will be interesting to see how his game evolves in his second go-around as team leader. Despite playing more minutes and taking more possessions than he did as a sophomore, Jones’ scoring average actually decreased in his junior year. His offensive rating dropped from 125 to 111, and his two-point, three-point, and free throw shooting percentages all declined. This season will determine whether he has what it takes to be a star or whether he will be remembered as an admirable sidekick to the Da’Sean Butler/Devin Ebanks teams.

Kilicli still only has about one and a half college seasons under his belt, so there is hope that he can improve enough to gain the trust of Bob Huggins for extended playing time in the WVU frontcourt. Kevin Noreen, who experienced a season-ending injury last year as a freshman, could also be a bit of an x-factor in the paint for the Mountaineers.

The most interesting returner in my mind is Darryl “Truck” Bryant. The 6-foot-2 guard had a very promising freshman campaign, and he was a key cog for the 2009-10 team before going down with a broken foot. With the graduation of Mazzula, Bryant will now be the seasoned veteran in the backcourt. Hopefully his experience will give what will be a young team some stability. It also wouldn’t hurt if he upped his shooting percentages just a bit: he shot 34.3% on twos and 32.3% on threes last year — not exactly awe-inspiring figures.

Bob Huggins has successfully guided the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament in each of the four years he’s coached the team. With that track record, it’s not wise to bet against the man doing the same in year five. While his team lacks the kind of star power it had during that Final Four season, the few returning veterans will now get their shot to prove they’re just as memorable.

Tennessee’s Supply Of Proven Production Running Low

When Cuonzo Martin left his post at Missouri State to take over for Bruce Pearl at Tennessee, there should be no doubt that he did his research on the situation. He knew there was a cloud hanging over the program waiting only for NCAA approval before unleashing a torrential downpour on the Knoxville campus. He also knew that Pearl’s on-court success had heightened the expectations for what the Volunteers are and can be in the realm of men’s hoops. He knew the combination of these factors would make it tough for any coach to succeed there in the short-term.

What Martin likely didn’t know, however, was just how dire his roster situation would become this off-season. In a best-case scenario, he would be entering his first campaign in Knoxville with at least one of Scotty Hopkins or Tobias Harris still around alongside incoming recruits Chris Jones and Kevin Ware. Instead, in a worst-case scenario, none of those four players will be with the Volunteers in 2011-12.

The rosters losses wouldn’t sting so much if Tennessee wasn’t so senior-heavy in 2010-11. In addition to losing Hopkins and Harris to the NBA, five other contributing players — Melvin Goins, Brian Williams, Josh Bone, John Fields, and Steven Pearl — have used up their college eligibility. As a result, Martin will welcome back just three regular rotation players from last season. And as the following chart displays, those three players weren’t exactly the production powerhouses of the team.

Cameron Tatum should certainly get his shot to be the lead guy next season as he’s the only returner who was among the team’s top-five scorers in 2010-11. He’ll also be counted on to provide some senior leadership for a squad that will be short on upperclassmen. Senior-to-be Renaldo Woolridge may also finally earn a shot to be more than a limited-minutes guy, though it’s no secret he’s had a far more effective rapping career over the last three years!

Coach Martin has signed four recruits thus far for 2011-12, bringing the total scholarship roster to 11 players. Though as points out, the team will be short on proven frontcourt players. Over the past few seasons, the Volunteers have been in the top quarter of Division I in effective height, which is at least partly a reason why they were a consistently solid defensive team under Bruce Pearl. Martin’s teams at Missouri State were never huge on effective height, and perhaps consequently, he never coached an elite defense while there (he did however have some very fine offensive units).

Martin will be tasked to “do more with less” in his first year at Tennessee both in terms of talent and size. Though he never got the Bears to the NCAA Tournament, his teams were contenders in a conference where maximizing the talent on the court was a must and where size differential certainly came into play against power-conference opponents. Now he’ll just have to face those circumstances against the likes of Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, and the rest of the SEC on a nightly basis.

Worst of all, pending the NCAA’s rulings this summer, Martin might have to do all of that without the prospect of making a post-season tournament. With the loss of so much production from the prior year, maybe that’s a pipe dream for 2011-12 anyway. Though that alone likely won’t abate a Volunteer fanbase that has come to expect its men’s team to win — and to win big.