West Virginia: Keeping up with the Jones
West Virginia has quietly gone about its business this fall, with its lone moment in the sun coming in a double-overtime victory over Kansas State two weeks ago. The Mountaineers have dropped just two games, both of which occurred in ESPN-sponsored events. The first, a home loss to Kent State, was in the 24-hour Hoops Marathon; the second, a road loss to Mississippi State, was part of the Big East-SEC Challenge. Fortunately, WVU isn't partaking in any more made-for-TV events this season, but its stiffest non-conference test awaits later this week at the Las Vegas Classic, where the team will play Missouri State and Baylor. If senior forward Kevin Jones performs in Vegas like he has in Morgantown this season, West Virginia could be on its way to garnering more attention as Big East play approaches.
Heading into this year, the gold standard for Jones was his sophomore campaign. Playing alongside future NBA draft picks DaSean Butler and Devin Ebanks, the 6-8 forward excelled as a role player who could be counted on to grab rebounds at a respectable rate, connect on a high-percentage of twos, and keep defenses honest as a 40 percent three-point shooter. In his junior year, Jones was expected to take his star turn, but he ended up regressing in several areas while playing a larger role. Through ten games this season, he's been looking much more like the star many expected to see last year. Jones is connecting on 68 percent of his twos, up from 49 percent last year, and he's posting his best rebounding rates ever at 16 percent (offensive) and 21 percent (defensive). Moreover, he's blocking shots like he did in his sophomore season (3.7 percent block rate) while refraining from committing fouls.
On a team with a rotation that features six freshmen and just three upperclassmen, Jones has been a steadying influence on the court for coach Bob Huggins. While credit is due to senior guard Truck Bryant for suddenly becoming a reliable two-point shooter, Jones has been WVU's most important player. Prior to Saturday's game against Miami, the Mountaineers had played about 490 meaningful possessions of basketball (total possessions minus possessions taking place when a game was statistically "over"). Jones has only been off the court for about 50 of those meaningful possessions. While the sample size is small, it's nonetheless startling to see that WVU has managed just 0.75 points per possession when Jones is sitting on the bench in non-blowout situations.
Of course, the WVU coaching staff is well aware that Jones must be on the court for the team to win games -- that's why he's playing 85 percent of available minutes. All of that is to say it's going to be increasingly important for Jones to remain an effective player without fouling as the schedule gets tougher. In the one game where he was in foul trouble at Mississippi State, the Mountaineers managed just 16 points on 16 field goal attempts when Jones was on the bench. They also grabbed only one offensive rebound in the 15 minutes he was sitting -- and that was the only offensive rebound the team tallied in all the Jones-less minutes from the start of the season through the Kansas State game (Jones played all 40 against Miami). That's a troubling stat for a program that emphasizes offensive rebounding.
Whatever becomes of WVU as the season progresses, Kevin Jones will be at the center of it. His re-emergence as a star player quietly leading a young team is a storyline worth following.
Ohio: Cooper's misses don't matter as much
Ohio's D.J. Cooper has been a known commodity since his freshman season when he teamed up with Indiana transfer Armon Bassett to take down mighty Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. Cooper has been a tremendous passer and a solid defender since then, but his jump shot and shot selection have left much to be desired. This season Cooper's team is off to a 9-1 start, and it's not because the tiny point guard has suddenly become a shooting star. Nope, his shooting numbers are still less than stellar, but several of his teammates have become more accurate shooters along the way. Junior forward Reggie Keely has become a go-to scorer in the paint this season, where he has gone from making 45 to 53 percent of his twos in the last year. Nick Kellogg, son of Clark, has given the team a steady presence on the perimeter. Former Ohio State player Walter Offutt has made perhaps the biggest impact of all the improved shooters. He's the second former Big Ten player who has played alongside Cooper, and though he's not quite the scorer that Bassett was, Offutt is the first guard to draw fouls at a rate close to Cooper since Bassett was playing in Athens. The Cooper-Offutt tandem should be able to make frequent trips to the line in MAC play as well.
The biggest difference between the Bobcats of this season and last has been their defensive play. They've transformed from an average defensive team to a near-elite one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team's defensive strength is on the perimeter. They're holding opponents to just 25 percent accuracy on three-point attempts, and they're forcing turnovers on 28 percent of their opponents' possession. Five rotation players currently boast steal percentages of over two percent, while Cooper leads the way with his five percent steal rate.
If Cooper can close in on making 50 percent of his twos or even 30 percent of his threes (he's currently at 48 and 27, which are not far from his career averages), it'd be much easier to have faith in this team's offensive attack. As it stands now, there's still an unsettling feeling that any given Ohio possession could end in a bad shot by Cooper. However, that hasn't hindered the Bobcats through their first ten games largely due to that staunch defense. If they keeps up the defensive intensity into January, Ohio may not lose more than five games all year.
Georgia State: Hunter gathers in results
The CAA has enjoyed a great string of success in recent years, often sending multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. Ron Hunter, who spent nearly two decades as the head coach at IUPUI, saw the CAA as a great landing spot due to its increased national stature. After all, he had built IUPUI into one of the great programs in the Summit League but had only one NCAA tournament appearance to show for it due to the conference's one-bid status. Though Georgia State has been far from a leading basketball program in the CAA, Hunter left IUPUI last summer for a chance to build GSU into a contender in the league. Through his first 11 games, he's already begun to turn things around in Atlanta.
Though the schedule leaves a bit to be desired, the Panthers have won eight straight games to get to 8-3 on the season. That record includes a 66-34 thumping of William & Mary in early CAA play. What should we make of this team? For starters, the Panthers are playing great defense, which comes as a bit of a surprise given that Hunter's best teams at IUPUI were known more for efficient offensive play than lockdown D. Credit Hunter for adjusting his approach to fit the personnel he inherited from Rod Barnes at Georgia State. Still, the new coach's impact has likely been felt more on the offensive side of the ball. Under Barnes last season, the Panthers had a miserable offensive attack that featured a lot of missed shots and plenty of turnovers. Hunter has managed to convert this senior-laden squad into a fairly adept offensive unit that is finally hitting a respectable share of twos and rarely coughing up the ball.
It's too early to tell whether this squad can jump into the upper echelon of the CAA, but their brand of basketball should be a lot less ugly this season. And with Hunter on the bench, the sideline antics should be a lot more animated!
Follow Corey on Twitter: @cjschmidt1. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.