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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/13/2008 09:27:00 PM

The Rise of Alexander The Great

West Virginia's Joe Alexander slashed through the UConn defense for 34 points.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- Consider, for a moment, these three players' averages over their past five games:

1. Michael Beasley, Kansas State: 32.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 50.4 percent FGs
2. Joe Alexander, West Virginia: 29.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 53.1 percent FGs
3. Tyler Hansbrough, UNC: 24.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 50.6 percent FGs

You know player No. 1. You know player No. 3. Those are your top two candidates for every national player of the year award. No. 2, the athletic, 6-foot-8 forward who's playing slightly better than Hansbrough over the past couple of weeks, and at least in the same ball park as Beasley, is barely known outside of West Virginia. The summer after Alexander's sophomore year in high school -- the same point at which Beasley and Hansbrough were becoming famous on recruiting circuits -- he was making his way back to the U.S. after spending six years in Beijing, while his father worked there for Nestle. Of the work he put in while in China, Alexander said, "I wouldn't call it basketball. It was just me, by myself, playing." He has only been a part of an organized team for five years.

Yet in Thursday's upset of 14th-ranked UConn, Alexander scored more points (34) than any player in the Big East tournament since Pitt's Vonteego Cummings (37) in 1998. The same player who only had offers from McDaniel, Randolph-Macon and Washington (not the University of Washington, but Washington College in Chestertown, Md.) coming out of high school, and scraped up a scholarship from WVU after a year at Hargrave Military Academy, managed to singlehandedly outscore the Huskies' entire front line of Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson and Hasheem Thabeet. That trio had just 28 points combined. The Mountaineers' 6-foot-8 junior star got his 34 with feathery fadeaway jumpers, drives to the basket to draw contact (he was 10-of-12 from the line) and a couple of emphatic dunks, including one in the final minute over Robinson, who was posterized in a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight.

This incredible run has elevated Alexander from being merely a decent star on a middling team into what UConn coach Jim Calhoun called "a terrific player," and perhaps the Best Player You Don't Know About anywhere in the country. It began at halftime of the Mountaineers' loss at UConn on March 1, when, according to senior forward Jamie Smalligan, WVU coach Bob Huggins got in Alexander's face and called him out for being "selfish." He had scored 12 first-half points but drawn Huggins' ire for a series of poor shots. This kind of motivation apparently works for Alexander, who's a naturally relaxed guy; he responded to the challenge not by declining to shoot but by getting more efficient, scoring 20 points in the second half to break the 30-point mark for the first time. He has not stopped scoring since.

As low as Alexander national profile is, he hasn't come entirely out of nowhere. "Joe's whole career, he just had flashes," said Smalligan, who first saw some of Alexander's potential when they played together on a Chinese summer tour in 2006. Even in October of 2005, when Alexander began his first practices as a freshman, Mike Gansey told a writer for the school's Web site, "I didn’t realize he was this good. He might be one of the top five athletes in the Big East. I’d put him up there with [Connecticut’s] Rudy Gay." Alexander may hame some of the same characteristics as former 'Eers star Kevin Pittsnogle -- both big white guys with facial hair and shooting touch -- but he is an infinitely better all-around player whom Huggins defined as "not a post guy, not a perimeter guy," but simply "a hard guard."

After seeing Alexander in this Big East tournament, where he's scored 60 points in West Virginia's two wins, it's amazing to think how marginalized he was in last year's run to the NIT title. Marginalized in John Beilein's offense -- and seemingly flirting with the then coach's doghouse -- Alexander did not score in double-figures for the Mountaineers' final nine games. Said sophomore guard Joe Mazzulla, "[Beilein's] offense had a lot to do with it; it was kind of like intramurals in that you made sure everyone got a shot up. Whereas this year, Joe's our workhorse. It's obvious who our best player is, and we go through him."

Alexander clashed with Huggins early this season as well, often responding to the fiery coach's assaults with blank stares. Huggins said he wanted Alexander to score like this all season, but "I couldn't get him to cooperate" -- mostly, the coach said, because Alexander has listened to pleas that he slow down his game, read defenses, and make better decisions on offense. When Alexander plays like that, West Virginia wants him to be selfish.

After the buzzer sounded, with Alexander dribbling out the clock on the best game of his still-blossoming career, Huggins put his arm around his star and walked him over to their postgame interview on ESPN. Leaning into Alexander's ear, the coach said, "See what happens when you do what I tell you to do?"

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posted by Luke Winn | View comments (2) |


Posted: March 14, 2008 9:26 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Finally, someone recognizing Joe Alexander's talent! Thank you, Luke! And, WVU fans can only look forward to having Joe back for another year, learning from Coach Huggs! There is some excitement in WV! :)
Posted: March 14, 2008 12:21 PM   by Anonymous Scott
WVU fans are grateful for everything John Beilein did with the exception of one thing. He should have redshirted Joe Alexander instead of playing him only 36 minutes his entire freshman season.
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