March 14, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jeff Neubauer knew he wasn’t being led on a wild goose chase when he drove over to Hargrave Military Academy to watch a 6-8 kid named Joe Alexander play in open gym. Hargrave’s coach Kevin Keatts is usually right on the money when it comes to endorsements.
But Neubauer also wasn’t sure what he was going to see when he got there.
“We were looking for a forward and we were kind of scrambling looking for new faces,” said Neubauer, now head coach at Eastern Kentucky University. “I called down to Hargrave because they’ve always got good players and asked them if they had anyone down there that would fit what we do.
“They said Joe Alexander was pretty good. The kicker to it was I went down and watched him play in open gym and they played up and down, they did some shooting drills and I felt like, OK, maybe,” Neubauer said. “I wasn’t convinced that’s for sure.
“Then I got to go and sit down and talk to him because it was a contact period and after talking to him I went from a maybe to, man, this is a kid we really should recruit because he was really focused on what he wants.”
More intriguing than Joe Alexander’s enormous ability was his lack of organized basketball experience. He spent six years living in China with his family before moving back to the United States. Most of what Alexander knew about the game he learned playing Xbox and Playstation. When Alexander came to WVU he admits he could only name a handful of the teams in the Top 25.
He had an ordinary two-year high school career in Mt. Airy, Md., and if not for a late invitation to play in a college showcase being held at the Comcast Center, Alexander would have probably followed his older brothers John and Jeremy and walked on at Division II Washington College.
A Hargrave assistant noticed Alexander’s great raw ability at the event and asked him to come down for a tryout. Alexander made the team but was buried deep on the bench playing behind guys like Pitt’s Sam Young and Villanova’s Shane Clark.
Getting a chance to play against these guys everyday in practice turned out to be a blessing for Alexander. And because Hargrave turns out so many Division I prospects each year the gym is always full of college coaches.
After Neubauer had his talk with Alexander and became convinced that he was serious about developing his game, Neubauer had to move quickly to get former coach John Beilein down there to see him because other schools were starting to find out about him. Tulane had already been down to talk to Alexander and South Carolina was beginning to call as well.
“I had Coach come in that next week,” Neubauer said.
When Alexander signed with West Virginia Neubauer knew Alexander was most likely going to be a long-term project.
“With any high school kid you bring in there is always that learning curve and there is so much they need to pick up on,” Neubauer explained. “It was one of those light bulb deals where you thought, man, if the light bulb ever goes on with this guy he could be super. At that point when we saw him in prep school he wasn’t close to being there.”
Alexander’s two seasons with John Beilein produced mixed results. Alexander wasn’t entirely suited for Beilein’s perimeter style system and Beilein wasn’t entirely comfortable with Alexander’s lack of experience. Basketball savvy is an important component in Beilein’s system and Alexander had very little of it. Consequently Alexander played a limited role during most of West Virginia’s remaining nine-game run toward the NIT title.
Then when Beilein left to take the Michigan job, Alexander was forced to learn an entirely new way of playing when Bob Huggins was hired. What immediately got Joe’s attention, though, was the fact that Huggins has a long track record of producing NBA players.
Alexander has a laser-beam like focus and a goal of his even back to his days at Hargrave Academy and before was of one day playing in the NBA.
“One of the things he said to me that convinced me was that he wanted to play in the NBA,” Neubauer recalled. “Some guys say that and you’re like, whatever, but the way he said that - the way that he talked and stared me right in the eyes – he was very convincing.”
Most of the year Alexander has spent with Huggins has been a battle of wills: Joe wanting to play his style and Huggins fighting to harness his great ability and using it to his advantage on the basketball court. The demarcation point in Alexander’s basketball career may have come at halftime of a 79-71 loss at Connecticut when Huggins called Alexander out in front of the team in the locker room at halftime.
Huggins didn’t hold anything back.
Alexander then figured why fight it? If I do what he tells me it absolves me of any responsibility if I screw up because I’m doing what he tells me.
Alexander’s production during the last five games has been staggering. He has scored 149 points during that stretch including 34 in a Big East Tournament quarterfinal victory against No. 15 Connecticut Thursday afternoon. Twice he’s scored 32 in regular-season games against Pitt and Connecticut, and added 29 in an overtime victory at St. John’s.
“I think I’ve reached this point because I’ve started to do 100 percent what the coaches have asked me to do and stop trying to do what I wanted to do,” Alexander frankly admits. “It turns out what he’s been telling me to do is 100 percent right.”
West Virginia assistant coach Billy Hahn has been around the game a long time and marvels at the way Huggins has been able to work with Alexander.
“Huggs has done a great job with talking to Joe,” Hahn said. “Huggs has spent a lot of time with Joe talking to him about what he wants, what we expect and how to play.”
Huggins says it’s simply a matter of Alexander slowing down and giving the defense time to react to him. Sometimes he will make two moves at once, not giving the defense time to react to his first move and thus canceling out the second move.
“He’s doing a much better job of reading the defense,” Huggins said. “He’s such a hard match up because if you put a bigger guy on him he can take him out on the floor and beat him off the dribble and get him to the basket or hit pull-up jump shots. If you put a smaller guy on him he can go down in the post and put people on his back.”
“I would grab the ball and try to move really fast and do everything in my repertoire all at once,” Alexander said. “But now Coach has got me to recognize that it’s actually better to move slower on the court.”
Regardless of what West Virginia does tonight against Georgetown, its NCAA tournament destination is now set with a 24-9 record. But Huggins wants more and he wants his team to want more.
“We’ve packed for the week,” Huggins said. “This is a four-game tournament for us – we knew that coming in.”
Whether or not West Virginia is good enough to knock off No. 1-seeded Georgetown remains to be seen. But don’t count the Mountaineers out, especially with the way Joe Alexander is playing of late.
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