New start for Truck?
MORGANTOWN - Suffice it to say Truck Bryant wasn't exactly giddy Thursday morning when coach Bob Huggins pulled him aside at West Virginia's shoot-around and told him he wouldn't be in the starting lineup later that night in the Mountaineers' crucial game against Pitt.
And why would he have been?
Bryant had played in 128 games during his college career. In all but 11 of those he was among the five introduced as the starters. Of those 11 he did not start, seven came in the first eight college games he played. The other four were consecutive games early in his sophomore season.
Although he'd missed a handful of games while injured - including the NCAA regional semifinals and finals and the Final Four in 2010 - he'd started the last 81 games in which he was able to play.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I like coming off the bench,'' Bryant said late Thursday night.
Whether he does so again when West Virginia next plays on Wednesday at Notre Dame apparently is a matter yet to be decided, but in hindsight it's hard to argue with the results.
Bryant didn't start the game or the second half, but still played 32 minutes Thursday as West Virginia earned a much-needed 66-48 win over Pitt at the Petersen Events Center.
Not only did Bryant play, he played well - as well as he's played in a month, save for a 32-point explosion against Providence. He didn't shoot lights out (4-for-11 overall and 1-for-4 on 3-pointers), but he finished with 15 points, tied a season high with seven rebounds, had a career-best four steals and made six of his seven free throws, most of them under pressure.
And he played with energy, which is what Huggins insists he was trying to accomplish by sitting Bryant for about six minutes at the start of the game and another two after halftime. When he did enter the game each time, he never came out.
"We're just playing him too many minutes,'' Huggins said. "Even now when I get him in I have a hard time taking him out. He played 32 minutes and that's [four minutes each half] of rest. He's just playing too much.
"We need him to guard and he hasn't guarded because he's gotten tired. And he really hasn't made shots because he's been tired. We need to keep him off the floor some.''
Indeed, it's not hard to imagine that at least part of Bryant's struggles of late have been because of overwork. Prior to the game at Pitt, West Virginia had gone just 2-5, a stretch during which Bryant averaged 40.6 minutes (two of the games went to overtime). He had not come out of a game even for a second since WVU last played Pitt, playing 45 minutes at Providence and 40 each against Notre Dame and Louisville. He also played 39 minutes against Syracuse and Pitt the first time, and "just" 37 at St. John's.
Earlier this season he played all 50 minutes of a double-overtime win over Kansas State and all 45 in back-to-back overtime games against Missouri State and Baylor.
Granted, teammate Kevin Jones has played even more minutes - 40 or more in eight straight games, including Thursday's at Pitt - but Bryant is generally covering more ground on defense while guarding backcourt players as opposed to big men.
Still, exhaustion might not have been Bryant's only issue. He was also involved in an altercation in the wee hours of Sunday morning near a downtown Morgantown bar (although he was apparently the victim, not the aggressor) and Huggins could not have been too happy about that. And, be it overwork or not, Bryant has also shot miserably the last month - 21 percent in six of the seven games combined prior to Thursday.
Bryant insists he doesn't know why Huggins elected not to start him.
"I don't know,'' he said after the game. "Coach came to me at shoot-around and said, 'I can't start you.' That's all I know. It's his decision.''
Regardless of the reason, the move seems to have helped at least somewhat. Bryant made his first shot off the bench - a 3-pointer - and was all over the floor on defense and under the basket. He did find himself wildly chasing Pitt's Lamar Patterson before giving up a 3-pointer on his first defensive turn in the game, but then had those four steals and seven boards.
Twice he hustled to follow freshmen Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds to the basket after those two had steals that seemed ready to be turned into layups. When both missed their shots, Bryant was there to follow one in and got fouled on the other and went to the line.
That doesn't mean, though, that Bryant relishes a role as a sixth man.
"It's coach's decision and there's nothing I can do about that. I just go by what he says,'' Bryant said. "But as long as we get the win I have no worries.
"It's been rough. It's been a rough week. But at the end of the day I'm still here, we just got a win and I'm happy now.''
Huggins wouldn't venture a guess as to whether Bryant will return to the lineup when the team plays Wednesday night in South Bend, but it became even more obvious Thursday that the Mountaineers are a much better team when Bryant plays well. His two best games in the last seven were against Pitt and his 32-point game at Providence when he hit the game-tying and game-winning shots.
Perhaps not coincidentally, those are the only two games WVU won in that stretch, so if some bench time is in order, so be it.
"He hasn't guarded the way he's capable of guarding and he hasn't made any shots,'' Huggins said. "He just hasn't played as well as we need for him to play and so we tried something different.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.