In a season where college basketball is without one dominant team, the national championship race is truly wide-open. Last night, #1 Kentucky dropped its first game at unranked South Carolina, becoming the last undefeated team to get familiar with the loss column.
West Virginia has just as good a chance as anybody at taking the whole thing. The 9th-ranked Mountaineers (16-3, 5-2 Big East) have a senior leader in SG/SF Da’Sean Butler who is also their best player, an athletic NBA wing prospect in Devin Ebanks, an explosive point guard in Darryl “Truck” Bryant, a good outside shooter in Wellington Smith, a future Hall of Fame coach in Bob Huggins, an underdog mentality since they’re not Kentucky or Kansas, and an entire legion of hungry wild dogs on the defensive end.
Kevin Jones is the glue guy. The 6-8 sophomore PF/C is averaging 14.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, shooting 55% from the floor and ranking among the Big East leaders in offensive boards. A Jordan Brand All-American at Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High School, Jones was part of Huggins’ much-hyped ’08 recruiting class that included Ebanks and Bryant.
Before West Virginia beat DePaul on the road yesterday, Jones took a few minutes to talk about what makes one of the nation’s top teams so dangerous.
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Dime: What’s been the key to West Virginia’s success this year?
Kevin Jones: We work hard every day in practice, and it shows on the court. We’ve really been working on our areas of weakness and just trying to get better every day.
Dime: For people who may not have seen you guys play yet, what kind of team is this?
KJ: We play very aggressive on defense and on offense. We attack people on both sides of the floor, and it’s worked out with the players we’ve got.
Dime: You guys were a #6 seed in the Tournament last year and lost in the first round, but going into this year were picked by some to make the Final Four. Were you surprised at all that you were ranked so high in the preseason polls?
KJ: I mean, we knew we had talent to be a Top-10 team, it was just a matter of putting it all together.
Dime: If you guys do go all the way, which players will play the biggest role in that?
KJ: Everybody is an important part of the team. Of course Da’Sean is our senior leader and the best player on the floor. But we’ve got a very well-balanced team and nice complementary players off the bench.
Dime: Devin Ebanks is getting the most NBA talk. What does he do on the court that has the pro scouts looking at him?
KJ: He’s a very unselfish player. He looks for his teammates a lot, but he can also create his own shot off the dribble and he’s real athletic. For a guy that’s 6-9 with his talent, I can see why the NBA is looking at him.
Dime: What’s your role in the whole operation?
KJ: My role is to bring energy every time I’m out on the court. Get rebounds and provide some scoring in the paint. I get a lot of points from offensive rebounds and hitting jump shots when my teammates find me in open spaces.
Dime: Having watched you play since high school, I know rebounding has always been one of your strong points. What’s the key to getting boards on the college level?
KJ: Just the will to want to go out there and rebound. The whole thing is just to compete on every possession. We have a lot of long, athletic guys on our team and Coach wants us to crash the boards. He talks about getting to the opposite side of where the ball is shot. Nine times out of 10, that’s where the rebound is going.
Dime: What’s been the biggest difference between this year and your freshman year?
KJ: I think now I know what to expect and what my coach expects. I know my role on the team, so I’m playing with a lot more confidence. I feel like the coaches really believe in me this year.
Dime: A lot of people say the speed of the game is the biggest thing freshmen have to adjust to when they go from high school to college. Was that true for you?
KJ: Not really. I’m used to playing up-and-down; it was really more the strength and playing against guys who are bigger than you every day. I wasn’t used to that from high school. And I think in high school when you’re a star player, you have to adjust to more of a role-player situation.
Dime: Who are the three best players you’ve gone against against this season?
KJ: Oh man … There’s been a whole bunch, but the three that stand out would be Wesley Johnson from Syracuse, Evan Turner from Ohio State, and Jeremy Hazell from Seton Hall.
Dime: What’s it been like playing for Bob Huggins?
KJ: It’s been great. He’s a very demanding coach; he demands a lot out of his players and expects us to go out and play as hard as we can. I mean, he’s as hard as his reputation says he is. But at the end of the day, he wants us to win and be successful. If you play hard, you won’t have any problems with Coach.
Dime: How are the practices?
KJ: Rough. Extremely scrappy, and we go for three hours. You get used to it after a while, though. I don’t know what other teams do in practice, but our conditioning is usually way better than your average team.
Dime: What is the toughest Big East gym to play in?
KJ: Probably when we go to Pitt. Louisville is hard, too, but Pitt is the hardest. That’s a big rivalry, a backyard brawl with us and them. And their fans are real creative with their chants and everything; they can get into some guy’s heads. Playing in the Big East makes you grow up quick. You can’t take any days off.
Dime: What does West Virginia have to do to win a national championship?
KJ: We just have to play up to our potential every game. We have to play a full 40 minutes of basketball. If we don’t take any possessions off, there isn’t any team that we can’t beat out there.