Mountaineers Are Who We Thought They Were

MORGANTOWN – As it turns out, West Virginia did, indeed, live up to its lofty preseason expectations.

In those polls, the Mountaineers appeared at No. 8, their highest preseason ranking since 1963. They were also picked second in the preseason Big East Coaches’ Poll.

At the end of the regular season, they were No. 7 in the country and No. 4 in the Big East. They could have finished third, had Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs not made a miracle shot against Providence, which shows how precarious the balance of power atop the league is.

Though that did end a string of seven consecutive seasons in which WVU wound up higher than its predicted finish in the league, there are worse things than finishing in the top four in the world’s most rugged conference.

Or are there?

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was thinking about that the other day, not as it pertains to the success of a season, but as it deals with the Big East Tournament, where his team begins postseason play at 9 tonight against Cincinnati.

As a top-four team, the Mountaineers received a double-bye, meaning they’ve sat around for two days watching other teams find rhythm in the cavernous Madison Square Garden.

”I think it’s kind of hard to sit there for two games, honestly,” Huggins said. ”Let two people get two games under their belt and they kinda feel comfortable because I think the first time you play in any tournament like that, you have some jitters.”

Last season, West Virginia had one bye, then went out and beat a Pitt team that had two, proving Huggins’ theory had some legs.

”So I don’t know,” Huggins said. ”I think to win I think that’s an advantage if you can get by the first one.”

That’s true too.

Louisville, the regular-season Big East champ, had the double-bye, then went on to win the tournament last season.

So it’s an inexact science.

Back to West Virginia’s regular season. They correctly predicted Da’Sean Butler would become a first-team All-Big East Player, but they missed on Devin Ebanks, as they assumed he’d be a second-teamer. He was a third-team selection.

And that might go down as one of the biggest misconceptions of the season for West Virginia. Where was Ebanks, the guy everyone thought was going to use this season as a springboard to NBA riches?

The answer – right in front of their faces.

Fans will look at Ebanks’ numbers – 12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds per game – and say they don’t jump off the page. What’s so spectacular about that?

The points per game rank him 28th in the league. The rebounds rank him sixth, just behind league Player of the Year Wes Johnson. He was seventh in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding.

So if Ebanks wasn’t among the marquee players in a college conference, why does anyone think he’ll be one in the most competitive league in the world?

And therein lies a behind-the-scenes aspect of Huggins’ coaching genius. The Mountaineers rarely run an offensive set for Ebanks. Huggins knows Ebanks could average double figures in points without taking an initial shot, so there’s little need to muddy that part of the clipboard. That’s time better spent to free up Butler for a 3-pointer or Kevin Jones for a high-percentage shot underneath.

Ebanks’ length – he’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan – allows him to take over and get a rebound and a stickback, which is where he gets so many of his points. Plus he’s a glove-like defender.

Perhaps at the next level, someone will plan to use Ebanks differently. There’s little denying he’s an NBA talent. That’s why you see him today, but you might not tomorrow. There’s only one word that league likes more than money – projection.

Finally, want to know one of the most hidden statistics to West Virginia’s season? Who was a better 3-point shooter in Big East play? Was it Wellington Smith or Jones?

Would you believe they tied at .405 percent, with Jones hitting 32 and Smith hitting 34 3-pointers in an equal percentage of attempts?

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: elliott@theintelligencer.net