The Keydets (5-1), who pressed and defended aggressively on the perimeter, forced the Mountaineers to play at a hurried tempo for much of the game, and as a result West Virginia did not exploit its superior height and strength advantage as much as it hoped. VMI held leads of three points at two different times in the first half, and trimmed a 13-point deficit to just four at the 7:50 mark of the second before finally succumbing to WVU's stronger inside game.
“We were just rushing shots,” said Mountaineer guard Casey Mitchell, who led all scorers with 25 points. “We knew we were bigger and stronger, but we just missed lay-ups trying to shoot it fast.”
In the opening half, West Virginia's play on the offensive end might best have been described as frantic. WVU (4-1) was able to get the ball inside against the shorter Keydets, but time and again failed to convert. Shaky passes and rushed ballhandling contributed to eight turnovers, including a pair in the backcourt against a nagging VMI press that led to Keydet scores.
West Virginia was clearly hampered by the on-court absence of starting guard Truck Bryant, who did not dress for the game after being ejected from practice earlier in the week by head coach Bob Huggins. Bryant, along with forward Danny Jennings, who suffered the same banishment, were in Charleston for the game but did not dress.
Without Bryant, WVU struggled to run its offense efficiently, and the situation became even more concerning when guard Joe Mazzulla headed to the bench after picking up two fouls in the first four minutes of the opening half. While Huggins stressed that more players than Bryant and Mazzulla should be capable of starting the offense, WVU searched for that capability for the remainder of the half. Walk-ons Kenny Ross and Craig Carey, as well as Dalton Pepper and Jonnie West, took turns in that role before Mazzulla returned after the break.
West Virginia did get a boost off the bench from freshman Kevin Noreen, who replaced Deniz Kilicli after the latter struggled on both ends of the court in the early going. Noreen, who admitted that he isn't totally comfortable with the offense just yet, still managed to score seven points and grab five rebounds in 14 minutes of action. He also played well defensively, hedging screens and helping to at least slow VMI's penetration.
For its part, VMI used a motion offense featuring numerous on- and off-the-ball screens to free up its shooters for good looks at the basket. The Keydets weren't able to capitalize from long range in the first half, as they went just 2-14 from beyond the arc. In the second, however, they converted on seven of 20 attempts to stay in the game until the final minutes. WVU was unable to stay with players such as Rodney Glasgow and Austin Kenon on the perimeter, as each hit three triples to keep the game competitive until the final minutes. But as the game wound down, the Mountaineers were able to exploit their inside game to the fullest, as Kevin Jones got to the rim for an assortment of lay-ups and jump hooks.
Mitchell added seven rebounds to his 25 points, while Jones tallied 22 and six rebounds. John Flowers chipped in eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. For VMI, Glasgow and Keith Gabriel shared scoring honors with 18 points.
Post-game, the majority of the discussion centered on the absence of Bryant and Jennings. Huggins explained, in no uncertain terms, that he is not going to play anyone that doesn't bring great effort in practice every day.
“Why would I do that?” the veteran head coach said. “We've got guys that want to take practice off and don't want to go hard and don't want to listen. I'm going to play the guys and coach the guys that want to get better. It's important to me, coming back here and understanding the people in the state and the people we represent. I probably played on some teams that didn't represent it in the fashion that it should have. We're not going to do that under my watch. Anybody that doesn't come in and try to get better every day, there's no sense in them playing.”
Huggins also used the object lesson of Casey Mitchell, who went through the same sort of struggle last year, as an example of what he's looking for.
“Casey Mitchell has been very coachable, and he has listened. He didn't shoot the ball very well today. But he got 25 points because he curled it, because he rebounded the ball and did all the things that he didn't want to do a year ago. Casey has made himself a player because he listens and tries to do the right thing. Kevin Noreen was all but buried on the bench, but he came in and tries to do what you ask him to do. I think we would all agree – where would we be without Casey Mitchell and Kevin Noreen? And those are two guys that just want to do things right. They aren't into doing their own thing.”
Huggins would not comment on a timeframe for either Bryant or Mitchell to return to the court, and emphasized that they were not suspended. Both traveled independently to Charleston for the game, and watched from a tunnel and from the bench at various points in the game.
WVU returns to the Coliseum on Wednesday for a 7:00 p.m. game against American.