By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
September 22, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Ask Da’Sean Butler his thoughts about being on the cover of Athlon Magazine and he’ll ask you if they used a good picture of him. That’s because he says he hasn’t seen it – and probably won’t.
Butler isn’t much for reading about himself or a Mountaineer basketball program that has consistently exceeded expectations each year he has been in Morgantown.
Two years ago, despite getting one of the top winners in the history of the college game in Bob Huggins, West Virginia was supposed to experience a drop off because the players didn’t fit Huggins’ system. West Virginia won 26 games, made it to the Big East tournament semifinals and reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the third time in the last four seasons.
This year, people are once again hedging their bets on West Virginia because the Mountaineers have been forced to go it alone without forward Joe Alexander.
No disrespecting Joe Alexander, but anyone who has studied West Virginia basketball closely understands that the Mountaineers have won several games in the past without big contributions from the high-flying forward, Butler says.
“If one person is not doing well somebody else will step in and fill that spot or the team will collectively do it together,” Butler explained.
Bring up West Virginia’s predicted middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big East this year and you get the usual roll of the eyes and the shrug of the shoulders from Butler.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” he says. “We haven’t been picked to finish in the top five in the conference ever and we’re never ranked. But we somehow find a way to get into the rankings or get into the top five (in the league). This year we plan on doing the same thing. Sooner or later, maybe when we graduate, they will start ranking us.”
Butler points out that the veterans on the team are battled tested against a tough Big East Conference slate and the made-for-television non-conference schedule Huggins is known for putting together each year. This season the Mountaineers have games against Iowa, Kansas State or Kentucky, at Mississippi, at Ohio State and a real tooth-puller against Davidson in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
“It’s very important to play against teams like that,” Butler said. “There are certain games that people look at and they have an excuse for us winning the game. When we played UCLA my freshman year and we beat them it was like, ‘Well it doesn’t count because UCLA didn’t have their point guard.’ We beat Arizona and it was like, ‘OK if they didn’t have Joe (Alexander) they probably wouldn’t have won the game.’ The Duke game as well. There are a lot of buts but we still won the game.”
Butler believes athletic junior Wellington Smith is capable of stepping into Alexander’s spot and doing a solid job this season. And if everyone else plays to their ability Smith won’t have to duplicate Alexander’s production anyway.
“I would hope that everybody takes on Joe’s role because he was a very important piece last year,” Butler said. “If we have one person that steps up and assumes Joe’s role that’s cool and if it’s a whole team effort that’s fine, too. Since I’ve been watching West Virginia basketball when they started recruiting me everything has been like a well-balanced scoring team, from Alex (Ruoff) and even the people before Alex was here.”
Butler, now a chisled 6-foot-7-inch, 225-pound forward, has been one of West Virginia’s most consistent players, averaging double figures both years in the program. Last season Butler averaged 13 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while playing the second most minutes on the team.
The Newark, N.J., resident is also one of only three guys to start all 37 games last year. Ironically, Butler was one of the players some thought might have a tough time making the switch from John Beilein to Bob Huggins.
In the beginning Butler had his doubts, too.
“After our first scrimmage when we played Mountain State it was just not working,” the junior admitted. “It was impossible and I didn’t see it working for me. The defense … I know I play defense but you’re so tired from playing defense that when you go down on offense you can barely do anything.
“It got overbearing that game and then we got to the next practice. Under Beilein the first guys really didn’t practice after the games. Well the next day after Mountain State we had a full-blown, three-hour practice. It was like goodness. After a while your body gets used to it and gets accustomed to hurting.”
The turning point for Butler came when he realized that Huggins was not going to give in to the players.
“Once you stopped crying and complaining about what hurts and just get focused on what you have to do which is play basketball and win games, that’s when it clicked for me,” Butler admitted.
Butler says it is when the players are tired and complaining that Huggins likes to remind them about their dreams of playing in the NBA. This isn’t easy and the NBA isn’t easy either, he says.
“Everybody has dreams of playing professional basketball and they play more than 40-45 games a year,” Butler said. “That’s just half the season. Your body is going to hurt and nobody wants to hear you complaining. You have to be better than your problems.”
Despite returning five key contributors from last year’s team Butler realizes that no jobs are safe because the coaching staff has recruited a talented cast of newcomers that is expected to make practices even more spirited and competitive this fall.
“It’s going to be a battle every day,” Butler said. “Devin (Ebanks) is unbelievably talented. He can handle the basketball, he can shoot it and he’s good with scoring the basketball. Kevin (Jones) is one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. From the time we had our first workout he’s always dead tired after we’re done because he works so hard.”
Butler says guard Truck Bryant will bring additional toughness to the backcourt.
“He’s phenomenal when he has the ball in his hands,” Butler mentioned. “Truck is working on things like his defense and he’s getting accustomed to playing the guard game. I don’t know any guards that work harder than Joe Mazzula and Joe is coming out of his head. Truck is holding his own against Joe and that says a lot.”
Butler also believes West Virginia will more than hold its own once again this year.
“We just have to prove everybody wrong again and that’s our plan,” he said.
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