MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) The video board at West Virginia’s first practice showed Da’Sean Butler thanking fans who rallied behind the Mountaineers’ first Final Four run in a half century.
Seeing his message was a simple dose of reality. Butler wasn’t on the court. The Mountaineers’ greatest scorer not named Jerry West or Hot Rod Hundley is gone from the program.
West Virginia will surely miss him.
Butler, last year’s leading scorer, made six game-winning shots during West Virginia’s school-record 31-win season, including twice in the Big East tournament
“I was just amazed at how he did it every time,” forward Kevin Jones said. “That’s what made him so special, what made him so great.”
The Mountaineers received a taste of what life will be like without Butler in their national semifinal against Duke when the senior tore the ACL in his left knee after a hard collision in the second half.
It’s an image forever etched in fans’ memories: Coach Bob Huggins going to Butler’s aide on the court and cradling the player’s head. His college career was over and the Mountaineers’ dream season was done, too. West Virginia was trailing by double digits at the time and couldn’t make up the deficit.
West Virginia will have three new starters this season because the Mountaineers also must replace forwards Wellington Smith and Devin Ebanks, the team’s top rebounder and defender who left two years early for the NBA.
But it’s Butler’s shoes that will be the hardest to fill. He led the Mountaineers scoring about 17 points a game.
Jones will be looked upon to make the transition from sidekick to spotlight. And he’s all for it.
“Honestly, I like that role,” said Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder last season. “I kind of played that role when I was in high school. But this is a totally different level and I’m looking forward to that role and accepting that challenge that Da’Sean had.
“I think that’s what made him so good in those situations is that he accepted that challenge every time it was given to him. And that’s just what I want to do.”
Huggins prefers to let his players do what they do best and not take them too far out of their comfort zones by giving them unfamiliar assignments.
Jones was at his best at making open shots and playing with his back to the basket. This year, Jones, a first-team all-Big East preseason selection, will have to juggle scoring and passing opportunities.
“There were games when Da’ didn’t score double figures but was very effective because he drew so much attention and he got the ball to open people,” Huggins said. “I think Kevin has to do the same thing. When they set up the defense to solely stop one guy, he’s got to be able to distribute the ball to other people.”
Jones said he shouldn’t necessarily be referred to as the go-to guy when West Virginia needs points. Just in case, he’s working on his ballhandling skills.
“We have plenty of capable scorers, and that’s what people don’t understand,” Jones said. “They think I’m going to have to carry the offense, or me and whoever. But it’s not like that.”