MORGANTOWN - It took longer than anyone expected, but Casey Mitchell has arrived. Mitchell, the 2008-09 National Junior College Player of the Year who suffered though a lost first season at West Virginia as a junior, scored 27 points on 8 of 11 shooting in a 71-50 victory against American University on Wednesday night at the WVU Coliseum.
Mitchell, limited to 3.7 points and 8.2 minutes per game and reputed as a one-trick pony last season, continued his colossal breakout against the Patriots, marking the fourth consecutive game of scoring 25 or more. He's averaging 22.3 points and 29.5 minutes per game, which lends itself to more opportunity, but his teammates and coaches say it's Mitchell's improved mindset and conditioning that is at the forefront of his surge.
"I think his confidence is sky high right now," point guard Truck Bryant said. "If you scored 25 points in four games straight, you'd feel like you could do anything. It's just good to see him in a groove."
Mitchell had 14 of West Virginia's first 32 points. At halftime the Mountaineers led 32-20.
Mitchell says he worked hard in the offseason, presumably on a tough-love checklist given to him by West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
"My focus level is way higher than it was before and that's helping me out a lot," said Mitchell, who stayed in Morgantown rather than going home to Savannah, Ga.
"I'm just trying to stay calm in the games, not force shots. Take the best shot I can take and my percentage has been going up by taking good shots."
The results are showing. There's an extra bounce in his step. His feet shift a little quicker, his knees bend a little lower on defense. Compared to last year, his anticipation is like that of a Tarot Card reader.
"I'm not surprised by Casey's offense," Bryant said. "I'm surprised by Casey's defense. I knew he could score the ball.
"I just hope he keeps it up. We need him to keep it up, honestly. He's been playing all-around good games. It's not like he just scoring 25 points. He got a block (Wednesday night), he got some steals (3), he was in rotations with us. He's just doing a little bit of everything."
In doing so, he's emerged from what must have felt like a year-long stay in Huggins' doghouse.
"Between what he has done with his body and his conditioning, and the fact that he is listening now, he learned how to play," Huggins said. "He is doing a great job of curling the screens and getting to the foul line. Obviously he can make shots, that was never the issue. It is knowing how to play, how to get himself to the foul line and score going to the goal. He has been very receptive to everything we've asked him to do."
As for the game, the Mountaineers (5-1), unsurprisingly, never trailed once and led by 25 in the closing minutes. Kevin Jones, off to something of a slow start to the season offensively, scored 16 points and pulled down five rebounds against the visitors from the nation's capital.
Vlad Moldoveanu scored a team-best 19 for the Patriots, the latest non-conference team to enter the Coliseum and get clobbered. Big name or small, no out-of-league foe has beaten West Virginia in Morgantown since LSU in November 2006, a span of 32 games. A Bob Huggins-coached team has yet to lose one.
West Virginia improved to 24-2 on Dec. 1, the second-winningest date in school history.