Can West Virginia recapture the basketball magic next year?
That’s the question everyone has as the Mountaineers try to forget a 78-57 debacle against Duke that eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament one game shy of reaching the finals.
It was a dismal performance with a devastating end, senior star Da’Sean Butler injuring his left knee with 8:59 to go in his career.
Originally diagnosed a sprain, further tests in Indianapolis on Sunday showed that Butler tore his ACL, sprained his MCL and suffered a pair of bone bruises.
Surgery will be performed, probably within the next two weeks once the swelling subsides, but the injury is certain to knock Butler out of the first round of the June 24 NBA draft and cost him a lot of bonus money.
As cloudy as is his future is the future of the Mountaineers.
On the surface it would appear that West Virginia would be well armed to defend its first Big East championship, even without Butler and Wellington Smith, but that may all hinge on forward Devin Ebanks’ decision about whether he will leave two years early for the NBA.
In the gloom of the post-game locker room in Indianapolis on Saturday night, he deflected questions about his future.
If he returns and improves as one would expect him to, taking on much of the role that Butler had this year and Joe Alexander the year before him, it would stand to reason he would enhance his draftability and improve the skills that need improving, mainly shooting.
It would also stand to reason that the Mountaineers would go into next season as one of the favorites in the Big East.
Ebanks and Kevin Jones, who showed himself to be a solid scorer, a great offensive rebounder and a wonderful team player, give WVU strength on the wings. With John Flowers back to come off the bench up front, WVU will again be long and athletic.
Add Turkish import Deniz Kilicli to the mix with a full year to prepare after missing 20 games this year and you have a team that figures to rebound and score up front.
There was, too, late in the year a broken foot suffered by Truck Bryant, the starting point guard, and Joe Mazzulla needing nearly three months to reach full strength and use of his dominant left arm to reach his top level of play.
“We thought we had a chance in the beginning of the year to be a good basketball team,” Huggins said. “We fought through a lot of things. Deniz sitting for 22 games. I think if Deniz plays the whole year, he's a totally different player. That made it difficult trying to get him involved 'cause he is a guy who can score the ball for us.
“You know, Joe not being able to really play for two-thirds of the year, we put him in games, but he couldn't really play. Then Truck going down. I think through all of it, our guys have done a great job of perservering and working their way through things. They're good guys. They're guys who put the team and the welfare of others before themselves. That's a great character to have.”
It’s also a great character to carry over into next year. With Jones, Ebanks, Flowers, Kilicli, Danny Jennings and Cam Thoroughman back up front and Bryant and Mazzulla at the point, WVU is talented and good.
Add in Casey Mitchell and Jonnie West back for their senior years at shooting guard, either possibly starting, and an improved Dalton Pepper, plus a strong group of recruits and the Mountaineers remain a force in the Big East for the coming season.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.