West Virginia remains one of six unbeaten teams in the nation but it has had to survive two close calls during the first week of Big East play.
The Mountaineers notched a 90-84 road victory at Seton Hall last Saturday despite blowing a 10-point lead in the final 48 seconds of regulation. West Virginia (11-0) then rallied to edge Marquette 63-62 on Tuesday in Morgantown.
“We got lucky,” West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks said after the Marquette game. “We got a lucky win. But we keep saying we want to be a championship team. We’re going to have games like this and we’re going to have to grind them out if we’re going to win a championship.”
It will be interesting to see if West Virginia’s luck runs out Friday afternoon when it visits another unbeaten, Purdue (12-0). The other undefeated teams are Kansas (12-0), Kentucky (14-0), Syracuse (13-0) and Texas (12-0).
West Virginia is No. 6 in the current Pomeroy Ratings, which is fourth among unbeatens as the Mountaineers are behind Texas (No. 1), Kansas (No. 2) and Syracuse (No. 4) but ahead of Purdue (No. 13) and Kentucky (No. 15). However, West Virginia has clearly played the toughest schedule of the undefeated teams, their strength of schedule ranked No. 44 by the Pomeroy Ratings, far ahead of Syracuse (No. 201), Texas (No. 213), Purdue (No. 237), Kentucky (No. 242) and Kansas (No. 264).
Ebanks is the most gifted player on the West Virginia roster. The sophomore, who missed the first four games of the season because of what was termed a personal matter, is averaging 14.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 34.6 minutes a game and is 58th in the nation with a 24.6 defensive rebounding percentage. Ebanks was named the United States Basketball Writers Association’s Oscar Robertson Player of the Week for last week when he had a career-high 22 points and 17 rebounds against Seton Hall after scoring 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a victory over Mississippi.
Kevin Jones, another sophomore forward, is also off to a fine start with a 15.7/7.5/1.2/32.2 line. He also ranks among the nation’s leaders in numerous advanced metrics, including 42nd in Offensive Rating (128.1), 46th in effective field-goal percentage (63.5), 75th in offensive rebounding percentage (14.1) and 94th in True Shooting Percentage (63.5).
However, the Mountaineers’ heart and soul is senior forward Da’Sean Butler, who has averages of 16.5/5.7/3.8/33.1. Butler’s 126.5 Offensive Rating is 52nd in the nation and he figures to finish third on West Virginia’s career scoring list behind the legendary Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley.
It was quite fitting that Butler kept West Virginia’s record perfect with a jumper from the right wing with 2.3 seconds remaining to beat Marquette.
“That's why he is who he is,” Jones said. “Da'Sean makes big shots like that all the time.”
Butler came to West Virginia without much fanfare and was expected to be no more than a solid regular. He has also had to go through the transition of a coaching change when John Beilein left for Michigan after Butler’s freshman season and Huggins came to his alma mater after one season at Kansas State. Furthermore, Butler has been extremely versatility during his four seasons.
“The amazing thing is he's played point, he's played two, he's played three, he's played power forward, he's guarded centers,” Huggins told the Charleston Gazette’s Dave Hickman.
Few people know the history of West Virginia basketball better than Huggins, who also grew up in Morgantown. Thus, he is able to put Butler’s career into perspective.
“He's probably been as complete a player that's ever played here other than Jerry,” Huggins said. “I don't really know the guys before Jerry, but I've pretty much seen the rest of them since and I can't think of anyone who's done more in a variety of ways than what he's done. And that after all that he could end up being the third-leading scorer in the history of the school, which is phenomenal when you think of the two guys that are in front of him.”
Battle for Bluegrass Looming
Kentucky will put its perfect record on the line Saturday afternoon when it hosts Louisville in what might be the most-hyped game of the regular season. The hype, though, won’t have anything to do with Wildcats freshman guard John Wall or John Calipari, who has won his first 14 games as Kentucky’s coach.
It will all be about Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Kentucky fans revered Pitino when he led the Wildcats to the national championship game in 1997, where they fell to Arizona in overtime.
Pitino left to become coach of the NBA’s Boston Celtics after the near-miss but what really angered Kentucky fans is that he picked in-state rival Louisville when he returned to college coaching in 2001. While Pitino has been treated rudely by the fans in other visits to Lexington, this return could be especially brutal in wake of his admission this past August of having extramarital sex with Karen Cunagin Sypher, who would later become the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher.
“I’m just glad the game is finally here so everyone will stop talking about it,” Louisville sophomore center Samardo Samuels said. “It’s all everyone has been talking about since summer. It’s a big game but it’s also a non-conference game. The Big East games are more important than this game in the big picture.”
Pitino has tried to stay clear of any talk about the Kentucky fans, instead hyping the on-court action as he called the Wall “the first player I’ve coached against who may be unpressable.”
UAB Off to Strong Start
Alabama-Birmingham cracked The Associated Press poll this week at No. 24 and are No. 27 according to the Pomeroy Ratings. Though the Blazers fell to 11-2 with a 72-63 road loss to Virginia on Wednesday night, what makes their success so surprising is that coach Mike Davis saw what would have been a five-star recruiting class fall through last year.
DeMarcus Cousins and Casey Mitchell originally committed to play for UAB. However, both changed their minds and Cousins, a freshman center, is averaging 15.1/9.2/0.6/19.7 for Kentucky and Mitchell, a junior guard, is averaging 7.7/1.8/0.6/16.2 for West Virginia while playing with a knee injury.
“We have two good teams,” Davis told the Birmingham News’ Kevin Scarbinsky. “We have one somewhere else and we have one here. I like these guys.”
The Blazers are winning despite having six newcomers in their rotation, including three in the starting lineup. However, most of those newcomers have plenty of experience. Junior forward Elijah Millsap transferred from Louisiana-Lafayette and junior guard Jamarr Sanders is a transfer from Alabama State. Senior guard George Drake played at Vanderbilt and senior center Kenneth Cooper at Oklahoma State, both having a fifth year of eligibility as graduate students.
“If you think about it, that’s what UAB was built on, transfers and guys that had a chip on their shoulder,’’ Davis said. “That’s been the history of UAB, and that’s what we have now. They want to prove something. They want to prove it as a team.”
Fredette Goes Off Against Arizona
Jimmer Fredette turned in one of the season’s finest performances Monday night when the junior guard scored 49 points in Brigham Young’s 99-69 rout at Arizona, setting both school and McKale Center records.
The school record had stood since 1961 when Bob Skousen had 47 points against UCLA. Providence’s Eric Murdock set the McKale Center mark with 45 points in a loss to the Wildcats in 1980.
Fredette was 16-for-23 from the field and knocked down 9-of-13 three-pointers.
“I was looking at the basket, and it was looking pretty big, and I had a good stroke,” Fredette said. “That’s kind of what I thought. I knew it was going to be a good night.”
Fredette’s performance had Arizona coach Sean Miller comparing Fredette to Mark Price, a four-time All-Star in the NBA in a five-season span from 1989-94 and also an All-America guard at Georgia Tech.
“I’m not an NBA general manager but I would put Fredette up against a lot of guards in the country,” Miller said.
Fredette is one of the major reasons why BYU is 12-1 and No. 5 in the Pomeroy Ratings as he is averaging 21.5/3.2/5.8/31.2. He is also 49th in the nation in percentage of possessions (30.3) and 72nd in assist rate (32.2).
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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