Hitting His Stride
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
March 4, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – At halftime of last Saturday’s 79-71 loss to Connecticut West Virginia coach Bob Huggins called out junior forward Joe Alexander within earshot of his teammates. The gist of his message: get your act together and play the way you are capable of playing because we need you.
“I can’t tell you his exact words,” Alexander said. “He was basically emphasizing all of the stuff he’s been telling me all year … slow down – there was a lot of little technical stuff, fundamentals - stressing that type of stuff.”
Apparently Alexander took Huggins’ message the way it was meant to be received, going out and scoring 20 second-half points against Connecticut’s best defender Jeff Adrien and finishing with a career-high 32 points.
Two nights later Alexander was at it again, matching his career high of 32 against a Pitt team that prides itself on stopping other teams. First Sam Young with 7:21 remaining and then DeJuan Blair with 1:50 left both fouled out of the game trying to guard Alexander.
For a majority of the second half Panther coach Jamie Dixon had no other choice but to play zone defense against Alexander.
“We had guys in foul trouble – all of our big guys were in foul trouble and it changes the game,” Dixon said. “It changes how you do things but he is a very good player. He averages 15 on the year so it’s not like he hasn’t made shots before.”
It was the first time in 26 years that a West Virginia player has scored 30 points in back-to-back games (Greg Jones did it against Youngstown State and Marshall). Alexander has boosted his scoring average from 14.5 points per game heading into last weekend to his present 15.7 points-per-game average.
These back-to-back games are exactly the type of performances Huggins has been looking for from his athletic 6-foot-8-inch forward.
“I’ve been doing more of the things Huggins has been telling me to do all along,” Alexander said.
“Joe’s learning. Joe wants to be a good player,” Huggins said. “I don’t think we’ve ever doubted that. His understanding of how to play is getting better and that’s the most important thing.”
The biggest difference in Joe’s game from last year is his willingness to mix it up inside instead of standing out on the wing and simply shooting jump shots. Huggins is teaching him how to use his athletic ability near the basket where it’s much easier to score. There have been bumps along the way but Alexander’s progress has been steady.
“It’s been a slow process the whole year from when (Huggins) first came here there hasn’t been anything that has kind of made me skyrocket,” Alexander said. “It’s been pretty gradual.”
“Joe had a lot tunnel vision I think,” Huggins added. “You told him to do one thing and he did it - he didn’t do anything else. I think he’s learning to play the whole game. He played against two really good players and I thought he made some good plays defensively against them as well.”
Teammate Darris Nichols is seeing a whole different player in Alexander right now.
“He’s letting the game come to him,” Nichols explained. “I see where a lot of people say that Joe doesn’t really understand the game but I see flashes in the last few games where he’s really playing under control and letting the game come to him.
“He has all the talent in the world but sometimes he gets a little out of control and it leads to a bad play,” Nichols said. “He’s cutting down on that a lot and as you can see his play is getting better.”
Alex Ruoff believes it’s simply a matter of Alexander having more self confidence in his God-given abilities. Ruoff points out that it was about this time last year when Alexander was starting to fade and former Coach John Beilein began using him more infrequently.
“It was a lack of confidence. We had a great scorer in Frank Young. We were still winning games without him but this year Joe is in a stronger role,” Ruoff said. “If we don’t have him scoring then the team suffers. We only had 52 points at Pittsburgh.”
Remarkably, Ruoff says that what Alexander is doing right now on the court is just a small fraction of what they see from him everyday in practice. Ruoff believes Alexander’s last two games against Connecticut and Pitt are only the beginning of even bigger things for him down the road.
“It’s a whole other level that you guys haven’t seen,” Ruoff said. “He’s playing to the potential that he can play. I’ve known that he can play like this. If were to guess I believe he is going to continue to play like this even through next year.
“There is no reason why he should be scoring under 20 and not getting double digit rebounds. With his athleticism and his skill level this is how he should be playing and I think he is realizing that,” Ruoff said.
“Anytime you have the chance and the ability to do something like that you always want to step up and be there for your teammates and kind of take on that role,” Alexander said.
Huggins sums up Alexander’s progress this way: “Up there he scores five and then down here he makes a miraculous recovery from shooting the ball on the wrong side of the backboard,” he joked.
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