Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant leave West Virginia and Big East with four NCAA Tournaments and a Final Four to their credit. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)
Since he returned to his alma mater in 2007, Bob Huggins has brought West Virginia to arguably its highest level of success as a basketball program on the heels of five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a Final Four in 2010. This year's Mountaineers team only went 19-14, but the toughness and grit symbolic of all Huggins teams was ever-present in this West Virginia bunch before, during and after their round of 64 loss to Gonzaga.
In what would be their final season in the Big East, the Mountaineers opened the season 9-3 before winning their conference opener against Villanova to start what looked like yet another run to a double bye in the Big East tournament. A stretch in which West Virginia lost seven of nine before winning two straight to close the regular season prevented that from happening, but the Mountaineers still secured a single bye into the second round at Madison Square Garden, where they fell to 2011 national champion Connecticut in overtime.
Mount Vernon product Kevin Jones, a forward who over his four years became one of the most underrated players in the nation; leaves Morgantown upon his graduation next month, as does Brooklyn native Darryl "Truck" Bryant. Together, Jones and Bryant formed one of the best senior one-two punches in the nation: An all-around talent inside coupled with a dynamic combo guard. Jones' averages of nearly 20 points and 11 rebounds made him one of only two players in the Big East (Seton Hall's Herb Pope was the other) to average a double-double for the season, while Bryant's 16.9 points per game would be good enough to make him the leading scorer on several other programs in the conference. Behind them, power forward Deniz Kilicli enjoyed his finest season in a West Virginia uniform, pulling in nearly eleven points and over five rebounds per contest.
A Bob Huggins team is nonexistent without its several role players, and none filled that important piece of the puzzle more than freshman Gary Browne. Underrated at the start of the season, Browne proved several critics wrong as the Mountaineers' campaign went on; not only averaging nearly three assists per game off the bench as a backup to fellow freshman Jabarie Hinds, but also singlehandedly winning a crucial game against conference rival Cincinnati with his clutch heroics. The aforementioned Hinds, a product of Bob Cimmino's Mount Vernon High School program just like Kevin Jones, averaged over seven points and three assists per night in his first season at the controls of Huggins' offense. In limited action, Aaron Brown proved himself to be a very capable scorer and shooter whose numbers translate to ten points and seven rebounds per game when adjusted for 40 minutes. Brown also shot 39 percent from three-point range.
West Virginia leaves the Big East for the Big 12 this summer, and will almost certainly be projected to finish within the top half of their new conference, which includes rivals the likes of Kansas, Baylor and Texas among others. Three new faces will also make their way into Morgantown, headlined by 6-9 forward Elijah Macon. Macon, who could become the replacement to Jones over time, turned down offers from fellow Big East institutions Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to suit up for the Mountaineers. He will be joined in the rookie class by a pair of shooting guards in 6-3 Eron Harris of Indianapolis and 6-5 North Carolina product Terry Henderson, both of whom were heavily recruited at the mid-major level. Harris and Henderson are listed as three-star prospects by Rivals.com, which also ranks Macon as 57th overall in the nation among 2012 recruits. West Virginia is looking at a new conference and new face of the team next season, but with the core of last year's group back, don't be surprised to see the same end result from Bob Huggins and company.