By Dave Hickman
MORGANTOWN - It was roughly a year ago that Casey Mitchell was seen as potentially the difference maker for West Virginia's basketball team.
If he could make shots, or so the theory went, a good Mountaineer team might just develop into a great one.
Well, Mitchell seldom made those shots. Truth be told, he seldom got the chance, playing only token minutes at the most critical times. Still, West Virginia won a school-record 31 games and made it to the Final Four for the first time in more than half a century.
This season, though, the junior college shooting guard is heavily in the mix. When the Mountaineers play VMI at 7 p.m. today at the Charleston Civic Center, Mitchell comes in as the Big East's second-leading scorer. Averaging 20.5 points per game, he is coming off of 31- and 27-point performances in the Puerto Rico Shootout.
The differences? Well, there are a lot of them, but the primary one might be that with Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith gone from last year's team, Mitchell has no choice but to score more.
But the fact that coach Bob Huggins feels more confident putting the ball in Mitchell's hands can't be ignored, either.
"Casey's very capable of making shots,'' Huggins said. "We were hoping he could do it last year, but he didn't understand how to play. And with the guys we had it was hard because he was constantly almost in their way. And then defensively he just wasn't very good. He's improved dramatically, I think, in both areas.''
Mitchell admits that simply understanding Huggins and how he wants him to play are big factors in his emergence as a scorer. But he is also quick to point out that last season - his first at WVU after a high-scoring junior college career - he was hampered by a knee injury that limited his ability to do what Huggins wanted him to do.
"He expects more out of me,'' Mitchell said. "And I didn't want to tell him last year that playing defense I couldn't slide like I wanted to. He'd yell at me and it kind of frustrated me a little. I'm a hundred percent now, though, and I'm trying to do everything he tells me.''