SCOUTING THE BRAVES
West Virginia faces another first-year coach in its third game of the season, but Braves coach Luther Riley doesn't have nearly the returning talent or skill that the Mountaineers faced on Tuesday. Riley, a former graduate assistant at Alcorn State, took over a Braves team that was 4-23 a year ago, and wasted no time in reloading his roster, securing seven jucos among a massive 14-player overhaul. Not all of those players achieved initial eligibility, and it appears that the Braves will travel with a ten-player roster. Mixing and matching those newcomers will be a huge task, and Riley will likely have to do a lot of experimenting early on to find his best combinations.
Senior guard Marquiz Baker is the anchor for the Braves, averaging 15 ppg last year and scoring 11 in their season-opening win. He's joined by shooting guard Twann Oakley, one of the juco imports who added 11 points in a win over Blue Mountain College, and Xavian Rimmer, who also chipped in 11.
Freshman swingman JaMichael Hawkins also had an impressive debut, scoring a game-high 17 points in the 76-39 win. Up front, 6-10 juco transfer Chris Brand gives the Braves immediate inside presence. He scored 14 points and helped the Braves to a +11 rebounding margin in their opener.
It's difficult to predict how much improvement the Braves may show this year, and reviews and information on their win over Blue Mountain is sketchy, to say the least. However, it's clear that the Braves had an infusion of new talent that may allow them to at lease be competitive in the Southwestern Athletic Conference this year.
Quite bluntly, this is a game that West Virginia should win on talent alone. However, that's not the thing to watch for in this contest. Nor is the scoreboard, where the Mountaineers might be expected to pile up a comfortable margin. Securing the win is the most important item, of course, but improvement in the vast number of problem areas evident over the first three games is the most important factor.
The first item to watch for is West Virginia's offensive motion and spacing. Turnovers have been a huge problem this year, but they can't all be blamed on bad ball handling or poor decision-making. At times, some of WVU's players haven't made themselves available for passes, or moved and cut to get open. That has allowed double teams on the ball to be very effective, resulting in turnovers or a reset of the offense. WVU has to become more efficient in running either the motion offense or its set plays, and has to go to the ball and make hard, aggressive cuts to create space for passes. That problem has existed primarily in the halfcourt, but it has also extended to WVU's press-breaker. On several occasions, one or two players haven't gotten to the right spots, or made cuts to the ball or to open spaces at the right times, and as a result, the players taking the first pass have been trapped and left without a pass target.
WVU 1-1, 0-0
Alcorn St. 0-0 ,0-0
WVU - 243
Alcorn St. - 296
Defensively, West Virginia has to rebound better across the board. While the Mountaineers did improve in that area from game one to game two, the fact is that Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones combined for 33 of WVU's 46 rebounds against Kent State. West Virginia's four other frontcourt players combined for a less-than-impressive five rebounds in the game, with Aaron Brown accounting for four of those. Those numbers have to improve, as Jones and Kilicli can't be expected to produce those numbers night after night.
Offensively, in addition to continuity, the microscope is on the other forwards. Again, other than Brown, scoring production has been next to nothing from the other frontcourters. The harsh but brutal truth of the matter is that WVU hasn't gotten much of anything from its frontcourt players other than Brown, and he's the shortest player of the bunch. The Mountaineers simply have to find more production from the group that includes Keaton Miles, Tommie McCune, Kevin Noreen, Pat Forsythe and Dominique Rutledge, otherwise it will be at a huge disadvantage in many games this season. To date, those five have produced a total of two points, four rebounds and zero blocked shots.
Also of key importance is the way in which WVU's veterans interact and help the newcomers. It's natural to assume that Kilicli, Jones and Bryant will be teachers to the newcomers and untested returnees, but that's not always an automatic. Teaching is a skill, just like shooting or passing, and not every player has that innate ability. Can West Virginia's upperclassmen help the rookies develop? They'll need to display all of their leadership skills in doing so -- and the process needs to start now.
West Virginia has outscored its opponents by nine in the first half this year, but is on the short end of a 12-point deficit in the second. WVU has suffered dry scoring spells at the outset of both of its second halves this year, but those have been due as much to the defensive efforts of its foes as to poor shooting. Both Oral Roberts and Kent State used traps (ORU in a full court press, Kent State on the wings in the halfcourt) to create turnovers and rushed possessions.
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Alcorn State's best RPI rating over the past five years is a mark of 320 in the 2006-07 season. There are 344 Division I teams this year, so obviously that mark leaves something to be desired.
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West Virginia recognized Truck Bryant for joining the 1,000-point club in a brief announcement on the floor prior to the Kent State game. As is usual, Bryant got a basketball to commemorate the feat, which he accomplished in the NCAA win over Clemson last March.
That leads us to wonder -- what mementos should players get for breaking other career records? Should Da'Sean Butler have gotten a clock for the most minutes played? And what should Kevin jones get when he breaks the school's career offensive rebounding record? A sheet of plexiglass? (Actually, that would be kind of cool -- have his name and record total emblazoned there.)
Jones, it should be noted, is just three offensive boards away from making that record his own.