By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
October 26, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bob Huggins believes Mountaineer fans could be in store for a head shaking experience when they watch junior college guard Casey Mitchell play basketball games this year.
||Guard Casey Mitchell was the No. 1 junior college player in the country last year at Chipola (Fla.) College.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Sometimes they will be shaking their heads in amazement, and sometimes they will be shaking their heads in disbelief.
“In all honesty, I think there are going to be days when people say, ‘He’s the best scoring guard since (All-American) Wil Robinson.’ And then there’s other days they will walk out of here and say, ‘What the hell did they recruit him for.’ That’s what happens when you have new guys,” Huggins said.
Huggins has been following Mitchell since his prep days at Savannah (Ga.) High School where he averaged 26 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game where he earned Class 5A all-state honors. Mitchell was a two-time Savannah Morning News Player of the Year and MVP of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Game.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, once scored 34 points going head-to-head against Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks in a high school all-star game. Huggins and the Cincinnati Bearcats were actually on Mitchell’s radar until his mother, Norma, was stricken with cancer.
That led Mitchell to Chipola Junior College in Mariana, Fla., where his game really blossomed. After averaging 7.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2008, Mitchell had a breakout year in 2009 by averaging 20.3 points per game in leading Chipola to a third place finish at the national junior college tournament.
“When I left high school I was basically just a shooter,” Mitchell admitted. “I just needed to work on getting to the rack and creating my shot so I worked on it all summer (before enrolling at Chipola).”
Mitchell was named national junior college player of the year and after briefly committing to Alabama-Birmingham, he reopened his recruitment when bigger schools such as Memphis, Kansas, Tennessee, Florida and West Virginia began calling.
All during that time Huggins remained on him, explaining to Mitchell West Virginia’s situation at shooting guard for 2010.
“Coach Huggs continued to recruit me so after junior college I just felt that West Virginia was the best spot for me since Alex Ruoff graduated,” Mitchell said.
Huggins said Mitchell became a much more polished offensive player in junior college.
“He plays off the dribble a lot better,” Huggins said. “He’s a lot better at putting it on the floor and getting to the basket and getting to the foul line.”
“He’ll go left or right and get you just leaning as a defender and then he has a step-back,” added MSN radio analyst Jay Jacobs. “When he steps back he creates that space for himself and his shot is so quick – he has such a quick release.”
As is the case with many junior college players, Mitchell’s one deficit area is defense. Mitchell admits that has been an adjustment for him during the first couple weeks of practice.
“It’s hard but to play in the Big East you have to play defense so I’m learning every day and getting better,” Mitchell said.
What Mitchell is learning now is completely different from what he was taught at other places.
“He is showing me a lot of technique,” Mitchell said. “I can tell he’s a very experienced coach by showing players how to play better defense.
“He’ll sit there and teach you until you get it or he’ll make you run, so I’d rather just learn how to do it then run,” Mitchell laughed.
Mitchell said he had surgery a month ago to clean up his knee and he should be ready to go when the season starts.
“I had meniscus surgery about four weeks ago and I’m getting better right now,” he said. “I’m probably like 90 percent right now. In another week or so I should be 100 percent.”
Exactly where Mitchell fits in West Virginia’s plans this year will hinge a great deal on how much he improves defensively.
However, there is no doubt Casey Mitchell can light up the scoreboard.
The deadline to order basketball season tickets ended last Friday, but the Mountaineers are still accepting season ticket orders. Fans can order tickets by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll free at 1-800-WVU GAME or by logging on to wvugame.com. For the second straight year West Virginia has already topped the 7,000 mark in total season tickets sold.
According to Jay Jacobs, at each spot on the floor there are legitimate position battles going on. At point guard it’s Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant, at shooting guard it’s Casey Mitchell and Dalton Pepper, at the wings you’ve got Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks going up against John Flowers and Kevin Jones, and at center its Wellington Smith battling Danny Jennings and Deniz Kilicli.
Jacobs says everyone is benefiting from the competition.
Jacobs said he could come close to picking a starting five for the first game against Loyola on Nov. 15, but he’s not sure what the lineup will look like 15 games into the season.
The word from those watching practice is that Joe Mazzulla has really worked hard on his jump shot during the off-season and his accuracy has significantly improved. He has also been shooting well with both hands close to the basket.
Look for West Virginia to make its first appearance in the AP preseason Top 25 poll since 2006 (15th), and also perhaps its first preseason Top 10 rating since 1963 when the Mountaineers were fifth behind Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky and Loyola-Chicago.
CNNSI’s Luke Winn recently ranked West Virginia’s front court of Devin Ebanks, Da’Sean Butler and Wellington Smith the third best in college basketball behind only North Carolina and Texas.
“The Mountaineers don't have a dominant low-post player, but they have two of the country's best scoring wings in Butler and Ebanks, who should become household names this season on a sleeper Final Four team,” wrote Winn.
Winn has West Virginia eighth in his preseason power ratings.
Meanwhile, Fox Sports’ Jeff Goodman has West Virginia sixth in his final preseason rankings posted on Oct. 17.
West Virginia being picked second behind Villanova in this year’s Big East preseason coaches’ poll may turn out to be a great thing for WVU. That’s because in each of the last seven years dating back to John Beilein’s first year coaching the Mountaineer program in 2002, West Virginia has finished higher than its predicted finish.
If the trend continues that means West Virginia will win the Big East this year.