Jonnie West could have gone to plenty of smaller schools, where he would have certainly gotten more playing time, more of an ability to show off that silky-smooth jump shot that gives fans a tingle of expectation every time he walks to the scorers’ table to check in.
Of course, if he had gone anywhere else, he also wouldn’t have had to deal as much with the baggage that comes with being Jerry West’s son. It would be hard to escape The Logo’s shadow no matter where the younger West went to college, but it’s impossible to get away from it at West Virginia.
That is particularly true at the Coliseum, where he can literally walk past a statue of his dad to enter the building, walk past the door of a large room named after him on the concourse level (the entrance to which features glass cases filled with countless relics from Jerry’s playing days in Morgantown), then go down the stairs to the playing court, where he can look up to the rafters and see a massive mural with his dad’s name, number and picture.
But Jonnie loved WVU, and so he came to Morgantown anyway. He dealt with the same rigorous Bob Huggins-coached practices as everyone else -- with less promise of playing time to result.
He loved the basketball program enough that when attrition started to hit this year’s team hard back in preseason practice, he decided to come back to the roster to help give Huggins more capable bodies to work with (he had previously decided to spend this year focused solely on academics).
West knows his limitations, knows his playing days are over once this season comes to an end. But he has aspirations of following in his father’s footsteps yet again and becoming a successful general manager or player personnel director of an NBA franchise.
With his dad’s background and Huggins’ seal of approval, one would think his résumé might stand out from the crowd.
John Flowers was committed to WVU when John Beilein left to take the head coaching job at Michigan and Bob Huggins was promptly hired to replace him in early April 2007.
But in many ways, Flowers was Huggins’ first Mountaineer recruit, as the veteran head coach had to, in his words, “re-recruit” the Maryland native after arriving in Morgantown. To Huggins’ recollection, it wasn’t hard.
“He wanted to play here,” the head coach said Friday.
That much should be obvious from the way Flowers worked on his game during his time at West Virginia. The fruits of his labor in the weight room were obvious rather quickly, as the forward managed to fill out his lanky 6-foot-7 frame with muscle he just didn’t have coming out of high school.
But because he was behind so many talented front-court players -- Joe Alexander, Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith -- for so many seasons, observers couldn’t see much else. His time on the floor was limited.
All the while, behind the scenes, Flowers was working. In practice, he was the guy who had to guard offensive juggernauts like Alexander and Butler. And so began the evolution of Flowers into a player Huggins said Friday is, without a doubt, the best defensive player in the Big East Conference.
He was already a fan-favorite because of his big personality, but he became a key player and a true contributor in this, his senior season.
Flowers even showed off an improved jump shot in the middle of the year and has continued to harass every star player in the league -- Marshon Brooks, Ben Hansbrough, Kemba Walker -- into some of their worst games of the season.
From a fan perspective, it might be Flowers’ humor and levity that will be missed most. But it would be folly to ignore the evolution of his game -- and the way he worked tirelessly to make it happen.
If it didn’t end so well, Cam Thoroughman’s would be one of the ultimate hard-luck stories in college basketball.
In case you didn’t hear one of the many times he told either coaches or the media, Thoroughman has often said he was recruited by Beilein as a shooting guard. Huggins recalled asking Beilein recently if that was true, and the former Mountaineer coach claimed it wasn’t.
Given the way Thoroughman’s jump shot is viewed by pretty much everyone in the Big East Conference -- just watch the defenders back away from him when he receives the ball near the perimeter -- Beilein might be wise to avoid taking any credit for that decision.
But Thoroughman can blame his oft-injured knees for that lack of jump-shooting ability. The Portsmouth, Ohio, native’s career would have seemed to be on rocky ground as a result.
Credit him, then, for remaking his game into one built around bruising defensive play and hard-nosed rebounding. Thoroughman is WVU’s human annoyance, getting into the body and under the skin of just about every player he faces off against.
He’s not made many big shots or thrown down power dunks or made any of the other offensive plays that bring fans off their feet. But in a town that still holds football up as its first love, Thoroughman draws hoots and hollers for his ability to set crushing blind-side screens -- something more than one Big East opponent has learned about the hard way, ending up in a heap on the Coliseum floor.
Thoroughman is the guy who does all the little things, and does almost all of them exceedingly well. While fans notice the hard screens more, his “normal” screens in the half-court offense are always executed well. He plays smart, aggressive defense to keep bigger, stronger opponents from having their way with him.
He distributes the ball well (his game-high six assists in the Mountaineers’ win over UConn on Wednesday night can be Exhibit A). He attacks the glass. He gives constant effort.
Some thought there was no way Thoroughman could be a starter and an integral presence on a team that would finish above .500 in Big East play or make an NCAA Tournament. He’s proved them wrong this year.
Every person who attends college, let alone plays college basketball, experiences highs and lows. Joe Mazzulla’s make even the wildest roller coaster ride look like child’s play.
Adversity? Mazzulla has been through it in spades -- at times, of his own doing. There were questions about his character after he and Thoroughman were arrested at a Pittsburgh Pirates game in early 2008.
But from that low point came an enduring lesson. Mazzulla recalled Friday that when he and Thoroughman were finally released in the early morning hours of the next day, they walked out the door to find Jonnie West, now-former teammate Wellington Smith and others waiting to take them back to Morgantown.
Because it had taken so long to get released from custody, they all missed a morning workout with Huggins that day. And that, as you might expect, didn’t set well with the head coach.
There was hell to pay. But they all paid it -- even West and Smith and the others. They went through Huggins’ punishment together, and Mazzulla said that was the first time he truly felt like he was part of a family and not just a basketball team at WVU.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of Mazzulla’s struggles. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the beginning.
When his shoulder was injured in a game against Mississippi three years ago, no one realized that (to use the words of MSNsportsNET.com’s John Antonik) the shoulder was “more unstable than the San Andreas Fault.”
But it was, and there was a harrowing surgery and a long, difficult, painful rehabilitation process. That in itself might not have been that bad, but there was a serious chance Mazzulla might never be able to play basketball again regardless. The surgery was that significant.
Mazzulla said Friday that without basketball, at that time, he had no identity. And like people without an identity often do, he developed some self-destructive tendencies. Some are well-documented. Others are not. Regardless, it was a dark time in the point guard’s life.
But as things stand now, there’s a happy ending to the story. Mazzulla is back to the game he loves and, in some ways, better than ever.
He’s a high-level defender and a threat to slash to the basket at any time. He showed off his jump shot in Wednesday night’s win against UConn, one of this first times that has truly been on display since the injury.
And it was Mazzulla, not Da’Sean Butler, who wore the majority of the net around his neck and was the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament last season, vanquishing Kentucky by scoring what was then a career-high 17 points.
But basketball isn’t all Mazzulla is defined by now. He said he recently read a book about the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, who was so tied up in baseball that when it was taken away from him for an extended period of time by injury that he slipped into alcohol and drug addiction that nearly derailed his life entirely.
Mazzulla said he could relate, but he’s on the other side of that now. He received his undergraduate degree early and has been working towards a master’s for some time now. Indeed, he is becoming the kind of man to match the basketball player he’s always been.
Mazzulla has an exceptional mind for the game. He may make a great coach one day. He so clearly idolizes Huggins that in 20 years, there will probably be another group of young basketball players somewhere, living in fear of a treadmill waiting, menacingly, just off the floor.