WVU still has glaring problem at point
As Darryl “Truck” Bryant limped down the Prudential Center hallway to catch the team bus headed for Newark International Airport, the Mountaineers point guard could have easily been mistaken for a football player who had just finished taking a 60-minute beating on the gridiron.
His left leg was wrapped as he swayed from side to side, hobbling out of the arena on a gimpy ankle with a grimace on his face.
Joe Mazzulla and his surgically repaired left shoulder, the one he can barely lift over his head and the same one that allows him to get through about half of practice each day, was already on the bus after logging just 12 minutes in the 90-84 overtime win against Seton Hall.
Bryant and Mazzulla were supposed to give West Virginia coach Bob Huggins a solid point guard duo this season.
In the last two games, nail-biting wins against Seton Hall and Marquette, Bryant and Mazzulla averaged 26.5 minutes and were ineffective, combining for a total of 12 points and eight assists with eight turnovers.
Somehow, the Mountaineers found a way to remain perfect — one of just a half-dozen unbeaten teams left in the Division I ranks — after blowing a 10-point lead with less than a minute left in regulation against the Pirates.
Huggins has managed — without Ebanks for four games, without a healthy, natural floor leader for much of the season and without his top recruit, skilled 7-footer Deniz Kilicli, until Feb. 3 — to take on all comers.
Casey Mitchell, regarded as a lights-out shooter, has come in and struggled to make shots from the perimeter. Freshman big man Danny Jennings, who spent 16 minutes on the court in the season-opener, has logged a total of 14 minutes in the last six games.
The Mountaineers ran the table out in Anaheim, considered the elite early season tournament, and then knocked off a ranked Ole Miss team in Morgantown before holding off a talented Seton Hall team in Newark last weekend.
They are one of two teams — the other being No. 4 Purdue — without a blemish to play more than one “true” road game thus far this season.
But even with the elite forward duo (and maybe trio) in college basketball — Butler, Ebanks and Kevin Jones — this team can’t be a legitimate national title contender without a point guard.
Huggins remains optimistic that Mazzulla, a southpaw who is shooting free throws right-handed, can regain the form from two years ago in which he averaged nearly 20 minutes per game.
Not that Mazzulla is John Wall, or anywhere in the same stratosphere, but if he and Bryant are at or near 100 percent, the Mountaineers may have enough around them to make a deep tournament run.
“The doctors say his range of motion is getting better,” Huggins said of Mazzulla’s shoulder. “This was the first time he was really able to play extended minutes.”
Bryant, already dealing with an injured ankle, suffered a pulled groin against Seton Hall.
That meant Butler and Ebanks were forced to handle the ball-handling duties for the bulk of the game.
“I like getting a chance to expand what I can do,” Butler said after his 21-point, six-rebound, six-assist performance in which he had just one turnover.
If Butler was terrific, then Ebanks was sensational and Jones wasn’t far behind.
Ebanks finished with 22 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and not a single turnover while playing the entire 45 minutes. Jones had 19 points, 14 rebounds and made three shots from beyond the arc to help preserve the victory.
“Those guys do everything for us,” Huggins said of Butler and Ebanks.
But they aren’t point guards.
Not full-time ones, anyway.
The long and talented Ebanks came into the season with all the hype as a potential NBA lottery pick, but he’s dealt with off-court issues and it’s been the underrated Butler who has been the team’s leader thus far.
"He’s as versatile a player as I’ve ever coached,” admitted Huggins. "He’s a guy who was a power forward when I first got him.”
He started at the point on Saturday.
Butler and Ebanks are both versatile enough to score, rebound, pass and defend. Jones, second on the team in scoring (15.5) and rebounding (8.1), has emerged as a big-time player who is plenty versatile and is also able to defend the post.
Wellington Smith was 5-for-6 from long distance and finished with 19 points in the 10-point win against Ole Miss.
There are plenty of weapons for Huggins to utilize.
Kilicli is talented enough to make an impact — even though he’ll miss the first 20 games of his career due to an NCAA suspension that resulted due to amateurism issues — this season when he returns in early February.
“I’ve heard he’s a big-time talent and that’ll make them even better,” Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said.
The only problem is that Kilicli isn’t a point guard.
“He’s still got to learn how to be a point guard,” Huggins said of Bryant. “He’s certainly more on board than he was last season.”
“I’m hopeful Joe can get back to what he was,” Huggins chimed in on Mazzulla.
If neither scenario materializes, it’s hard to fathom Huggins getting back to the Final Four for the first time in nearly 20 years.