MORGANTOWN - Joe Mazzulla is quick to point out that he's no Da'Sean Butler.
Not that many would ever confuse the two, of course, Butler having been a 6-foot-7 scoring machine with NBA skills and Mazzulla a gritty guard who no longer has much of a shot.
Still, as West Virginia's basketball team goes through the painful process of trying to compete in the Big East with essentially what amounts to a seven-man roster, it's hard not to draw at least one comparison.
A year ago, even when he wasn't needed to make dramatic, last-second shots to win games, Butler in so many ways hoisted the Mountaineers on his back and carried them to the Final Four. It might have been with a hustle play on either end of the court, a few well-chosen words at the right time or simply with a toughened practice mentality.
Again, Mazzulla isn't raining down buzzer-beating 3-pointers - or many 3s at all - but in addition to his gutsy drives to the basket and his suddenly-proficient strokes at the free-throw line, he is stepping into that leadership void created by Butler's departure.
"I'm not what Da'Sean was because he was a great shot-maker and very consistent,'' Mazzulla said after Saturday night's 66-55 win at Cincinnati. "Tonight it was just my turn. Next game it might be K.J. [Kevin Jones] or it might be John [Flowers]. It just depends on the game, depends on the situation.''
Know this, though: In West Virginia's remaining core of players, there are plenty willing to step into the leadership role, be it on the floor or off.
Take the just-completed two-game road trip to Louisville and Cincinnati, for example. It wasn't supposed to be an actual two-game trip, but when the team's charter flight home from Louisville on Wednesday had to be cancelled because of weather issues, the team stayed on the road, making the 90-minute trip to Cincinnati by bus on Thursday.
Before leaving, though, the team practiced. On a mandatory day off required by the NCAA each week. Without coaches or any other team personnel.
Call it a two-hour, sweat-soaked, players-only meeting. Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman, Flowers and the rest of the group called Louisville officials for permission to use the court, walked back over to the KFC Yum! Center where they had lost by a point to Louisville the night before, and went through their own practice.
"We did the scout [of Cincinnati] on our own and we practiced on our own,'' Mazzulla said. "I think that's something that really helped us come together as a team. ... We did everything that we normally would do, the underclassmen really listened and we were able to really start preparing for Cincinnati.''
In fact, it's amazing, really, how much this team has come together in the wake of the defection of reserve center Dan Jennings and the suspension of leading scorer Casey Mitchell in the past week. Sophomore Dalton Pepper has emerged as a scoring threat, center Deniz Kilicli can be counted on for a stretch of offense and some consistent rebounding, and the five starters - Mazzulla, Jones, Flowers, Thoroughman and Truck Bryant - are playing harder than ever.