SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- If Casey Mitchell and Bob Huggins are finally on the same page, West Virginia has a real shot to compete for a Big East title.
If they continue this cat-and-mouse game of who is in control -- a game that Mitchell will always lose to the 673-win head coach -- then the Mountaineers may turn into a team that doesn’t reach its potential.
So far in this young season, Mitchell has kept quiet, not talking back to Huggins and playing the kind of defense required by Huggs. Mitchell’s ability to shoot was never in question. If he had been in line with his coach, that might be more known nationally. And it may now after Mitchell buried a decisive 3-pointer with three seconds left to finish off a career-high 31-point performance in Friday’s 74-71 semifinal win over Vanderbilt in the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“I think he’s realized that he’s going to do what we asked him to do or he’s not going to play,’’ said Huggins. “He’s figured that out. We’re not asking him to do things that aren’t good. We’re not asking him to do bad things. But it’s hard to learn when your mouth is running. He’s grown up a lot.’’
Mitchell came to West Virginia a year ago from Chipola (Fla.) Junior College. Huggins recruited him to be a sharp-shooter. He was playing double-figure minutes in nonconference play last season, but his lack of defense and attention to detail led him to limited time. He played double-figures minutes only three times after Dec. 29.
Then he was suspended to start practice for a week to start this season.
“I know he gets frustrated with me,’’ Mitchell said of Huggins. “He knows I can play better. But he left me out there. Last year, I talked back a couple of times when I thought I was right about a situation. This year, I never say nothing back. I take it. I keep going. I keep working hard.’’
Mitchell said Huggins has gotten into his head, but in a positive way.
“He made me learn a valuable lesson that no matter how good you are, you’ll sit down [if you don’t listen],’’ Mitchell said. “I learned from my mistakes this year. I’m not going to do it again. I’m going to listen to him, stay humble and work hard.’’
Mitchell’s teammates are well-aware that he and Huggins have had issues.
“I guess they’re alike,’’ said WVU’s Kevin Jones. “They’re both stubborn. Once Casey was listening and not talking back and buying into the season, he stepped up and matured. It’s showing on the court. He’s got a scorer’s mentality and when he gets hot it’s lights out. We know that from practice. Not a lot of others know it, but the country will know it as the season goes on.’’
Teammate Darryl Bryant, who can feed Mitchell’s shooting, said the reason for the Huggins-Mitchell riff was about his defensive focus.
“He wanted to when he wanted to,’’ Bryant said of Mitchell’s desire to play defense. “He wasn’t buying into Huggs. This year, he is and it’s carrying over to the game. I knew he would. He can make shots and when he’s hot, he’s hot.’’
Mitchell had one streak in the second half when he scored 11 of 13 points for the Mountaineers. He was stunned when in the middle of the last offensive possession and the game tied, Vanderbilt went to a zone. Bryant found Mitchell open for the 3-pointer.
Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings defended the zone, saying it had been good to the Commodores.
“We should have had him covered on that last play,’’ Stallings said of Mitchell. “There was no reason for him to have gotten that shot on the last play. We just missed coverage and didn’t do what we’re coached to do. But he still had to make the shot and he did.’’
Mitchell said when he sees a zone, “my eyes light up. I found the open spot and usually I can get wide open against a zone.’’
Mitchell, who is in better condition this season, said he felt that he was going to have a bust-out game when he arrived in San Juan. Mitchell scored 12 points in 22 minutes in the opening win over Oakland and then scored a dozen points in 20 minutes in the win over Davidson here Thursday. Mitchell made six 3s and 9-of-15 shots (as well as 7-of-8 FTs) to score 31 points.
If Mitchell is ready to listen, then his shooting can be the perfect complement to the ballhandling and driving ability of Bryant and Joe Mazzulla on the perimeter, Jones and John Flowers on the wing and the rotation of strong men role players like Deniz Kilicli, Cam Thoroughman and Dan Jennings.
“There seems to be a curse where everyone wants to show the world what they can’t do rather than what they can,’’ Huggins said of Mitchell. “He’s learned so much and he can be a better player. He’s understanding how to play and that’s why he’s better. He was in miserable shape last year. He’s in great physical condition now. He just needs confidence. He knows I’m not going to pull the hook on him.’’
No way. Not when Mitchell can shoot like he did Friday to elevate the Mountaineers to a win.