No Ordindary Joe
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
October 7, 2005
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If you’re into recruiting rankings and five-star players then West Virginia University freshman forward Joe Alexander isn’t for you. Alexander had all of three college offers (McDaniel, Washington College and Randolph-Macon) after a very ordinary senior season at Linganore High School near Frederick, Md.
But if you like 6-foot-8-inch, 210-pound athletic freaks that can dunk from the foul line and knock down 15-foot jump shots with regularity then Alexander is your guy. He has yet to put a foot on the floor for an official practice and WVU senior forward Mike Gansey is already becoming a believer.
“When he came up on his visit I thought he’d be pretty good but I didn’t realize he was this good. He might be one of the top five athletes in the Big East,” Gansey said with a straight face. “I’d put him up there with (Connecticut’s) Rudy Gay. If he gets a breakaway it’s going to be nasty.”
That’s a pretty remarkable statement considering Gansey is a pretty fair athlete himself recently coming off a stint playing against some of the world’s top players with USA basketball.
Now before everyone begins thinking Joe Alexander is the next Sidd Finch, some backtracking is in order. Alexander spent six years living in China with his family (his father works for Nestle) before returning to the United States. He played basketball there but it wasn’t remotely close to being at the same level it is here and when he finally moved back before his junior year he was way behind the rest of his teammates.
Consequently, Alexander was just a so-so player at Linganore High -- a school he says is usually in the middle to the bottom of the pack in its conference. He averaged about 15 points and seven rebounds a game his senior season.
“I’m from Frederick and I never heard of him before he signed here,” said MSN basketball analyst Jay Jacobs.
“I was somewhere and someone from Maryland came up to me and said that he went to high school with Joe and he couldn’t believe he was coming to school here,” mentioned Gansey. “I said, ‘Just wait until you see him play.’”
Alexander’s high school team made it to the state semifinals his senior year and he was noticed by someone who invited him to a college showcase a few weeks later at the Comcast Center. If not for that invitation Alexander figures he would have probably wound up at Washington College just like his older brothers John and Jeremy.
“Coach (Chris) Zupko from Hargrave saw me there and asked me to come down for a tryout,” Alexander said.
With no other options, Alexander went and did well enough to earn a spot on a Hargrave team already loaded with major college talent. Twelve Hargrave players signed with Division I schools last year including Shane Clark (Maryland), Sam Young (Pitt), Bilal Benn (Villanova) and Jerome Johnson (UNLV).
Alexander played behind all of them.
“We had a real good team and I was pretty inexperienced compared to the other guys,” Alexander said. “They didn’t really need me. I was like third string.”
“I wouldn’t say we didn’t need him, but I think Hargrave had a lot to do with Joe ending up at West Virginia,” Coach Kevin Keatts said. “He certainly put in the hard work and did all of the little things he needed to do to get to that level.”
But third string at Hargrave isn’t all that bad. For the first couple months of the year the military academy’s gym is full of college coaches looking for players. Former West Virginia assistant Jeff Neubauer happened to be one of them.
“He saw me play one day and he wanted to talk to me afterward and it just went from there,” Alexander said. “I just had a good day when he saw me.”
“We were kind of scrambling around at the time and their coach told us about him and I went down there to see him play,” Neubauer, now Eastern Kentucky’s head coach, recalled. “I’ve always had the reputation for not liking guys but I came back impressed with him.
“And then once I had a chance to sit down and talk to him, the way he stared into your eyes when he talked to you and the intelligent questions he asked, I came away even more impressed,” Neubauer said.
“Joe is one of the most intriguing guys that I’ve ever coached because his upside is tremendous,” Keatts said. “If you look at the young man, there is really nothing on the basketball court that he can’t do. He can dribble the basketball, he can shoot the basketball, he’s super athletic, plus he runs the floor very well.”
There were other schools that eventually found out about him, too. South Carolina called as well as Kent State and some other MAC schools. Alexander says he had about 20 offers from schools varying in size. He wound up visiting Tulane before choosing West Virginia.
“I didn’t know a thing about West Virginia or even the Big East,” Alexander said.
“Joe’s situation is very unique,” Neubauer said. “He didn’t play AAU basketball so no one really knew about him.”
Remarkably, Alexander knew next to nothing about college basketball because he had been living out of the country and never saw games on TV. He admits he’d have a tough time right now sorting through a list of the top 25 schools and placing them in the right conferences.
“I don’t really watch sports on TV or play sports video games or anything: I just like going outside and playing,” he said.
Alexander’s time spent at Hargrave was essentially a year of basketball camp. The games were against junior colleges, Division III schools, college JV teams and other prep schools. He says his best game was a 17-point effort coming off the bench against another prep school team.
“The practices were better than the games and that’s where I got better,” he said.
“You can’t hide here. You’ve got to play everyday and if you don’t then you actually look bad,” said Keatts. “I think kids really learn how to compete here.”
John Beilein has liked what he’s seen of Alexander calling him a “real sleeper.” Beilein has made a living off of developing raw talent into good college players. Alexander says he’s learned so much already from Beilein during individual workouts.
“He’s just making my game more efficient,” Alexander says.
“Joe is a perfect fit for the style Coach Beilein plays where everybody has the ability to step out and shoot the ball,” Keatts said. “One day Joe is going to put everything together and when he does, it’s going to be scary for a lot of people.”
“I don’t think he realizes how good he can be,” added Gansey, explaining that Alexander isn’t a player for the recruiting junkies. “Those recruiting things … just set those aside because Joe’s a gem and we’ve got him.”
Alexander has his thoughts about the recruiting system fans have come to rely on so much, having worked his way up from the absolute bottom to landing a Division I scholarship.
“I played with a lot of (top-rated prospects) at Hargrave; I used to think these guys were all gods because they were all over the Internet,” he said. “I’m like, how’d they get on the Internet? They must be so good. Then I played with them and they’re just like normal guys.”
Despite West Virginia having four starters and six key contributors returning from last year’s Elite Eight team, Alexander has a chance of cracking the Mountaineers' top eight this year. But he has to learn to play with the other guys on the team and become a more consistent shooter. His limited basketball background might become a factor and it also remains to be seen how he’ll react to playing in packed arenas on national television.
“He’s a real good shooter, he just doesn’t have his confidence yet,” Gansey said.
But Gansey is confident Beilein will eventually get the most out of him, whether it’s this year or a couple of years down the road. “I’d hate to see him four years from now,” he said.
Coming from Mike Gansey, that’s saying a lot.
Note: Fans interested in purchasing basketball season tickets for the 2005-06 season can do so by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll-free at 1-800-WVU GAME.
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