- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There were plenty of questions about the state of West Virginia's basketball team when this season began. More questions than potential answers, judging by the fact that the coaches in the Big East picked the Mountaineers to finish ninth this season, exactly where they finished 2008-09.
Coaches can't vote for their own teams in the preseason poll, but even Mountaineers boss Mike Carey, although comfortable with some answers, had questions.
"I felt from last year's team, we were stronger; we had more height," Carey said. "And I felt defensively, we'd be a lot better. I just didn't know exactly where our points were going to come from as a team because, really, we only had three girls returning that were on last year's team who played. So I just didn't know how the chemistry would be and where our points would come and what our strengths and weaknesses would be -- especially on offense."
As it turns out, a lot of those points have come from junior point guard Sarah Miles. Coming off a win Sunday at Pittsburgh, in which they completed a season sweep of their archrivals, the Mountaineers have scored a total of 443 field goals this season. Miles has either finished or assisted on 179 of them -- 40.4 percent. That's a share of the load that puts her in the company of point guards like Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson (41.1 percent), Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis (46.3 percent) and Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot (44.4 percent).
Miles isn't the sole reason West Virginia is 17-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big East, one season removed from winning a total of five conference games in 16 tries. She probably isn't even 40.4 percent of the reason the Mountaineers are No. 13 in the nation instead of ninth in their own league. But she's an example of how the entire team has gone about answering all those queries.
One of two returning players who started all 33 games last season (Liz Repella is the other), Miles had more turnovers than assists playing alongside four-year point guard Ashley Powell in the backcourt in '08-09. Entering play Monday, she ranked 10th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged more assists per game than each of the nine of the players ranked ahead of her.
"I try to think before I do anything, before I make any type of pass, because Coach is always stressing valuing the possession," Miles said. "So I try to do that as much as possible."
Just about every point guard says that. Only the special ones actually translate it to the tune of a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. The one catch in this case is that Miles wasn't a point guard until a matter of months ago. Even without Powell running point for the first time in four years, Carey figured talented freshman Akeema Richards would take over. But with each day that passed in the preseason, it became more and more clear to him that the team just clicked with Miles.
Last season, Miles averaged 2.9 assists and 3.3 turnovers per game. This season, she's at 6.9 assists and 2.8 turnovers. Miles has adapted so well to the role, in fact, that Carey's biggest concern halfway through this season is that the former scoring guard is a little too unselfish.
"I tell you what, she's done a great job," Carey said. "In the beginning, she was a little hesitant. She wanted to do it, but she didn't know [if she could] because she's never played point guard. But she's really accepted her role on this basketball team. Actually, as a point guard, she's doing a super role, but I need her to look to score a little bit more."
But like any good point guard, Miles is always most eager to set up teammates, whether on the court or in print. She's happy to talk about her development at the position or about learning from a long freshman season spent mostly watching from the bench, but her words really carry a sense of energy only when she's asked about all the new options she has to work with.
"I can go on and on talking about them," Miles said.
In the frontcourt, "them" is 6-foot-4 freshman post Asya Bussie, second on the team in scoring and first in blocks, and redshirt junior Madina Ali, healthy enough after shoulder surgery to average 7.2 rebound per game. Minnesota transfer Korinne Campbell, whom Miles described as a "beast inside and outside," leads the team in rebounding and shoots 40 percent from the 3-point line in her first season on the court with the Mountaineers.
And the cupboard wasn't bare with Repella, the team's leading scorer this season.
"[She's] amazing," Miles said. "She can drive, shoot, defense, rebound -- all-around player."
Coupled with an earlier win at St. John's, the victory at Pitt was significant in giving a team that played a home-loaded nonconference schedule two quality wins on the road in conference play.
West Virginia's greatest strength remains its defense. In fact, with the added size inside and length on the wing, Carey said he believes this is "probably the best defensive team" he has had during his tenure in Morgantown. There was an ugly 92-69 loss at Ohio State early, a game in which the Buckeyes shot 60 percent from the floor, but West Virginia held each of its past 13 opponents to fewer than 60 points. Admittedly, that run didn't come against a murderer's row of foes, but it did include teams with some scoring potential like St. John's, DePaul and Pitt.
As road trips to Connecticut and Notre Dame approach, questions remain about exactly how well the offense will perform against the kind of defenses West Virginia's Top 25 peers bring to the court.
"I still have some concerns -- we still have to get better, a lot better in the half-court set," Carey said before the Pitt win. "And we need to start shooting better. But we have some shooters; we're just going through a shooting slump right now. But the key to us is because we play defense and we rebound pretty well, we can stay in games and have opportunities to win games. But offensively we've got to get better. We have to continue to get better, and that's why I want to see Sarah get involved a little bit more [shooting the ball]."
But after slogging through an injury-ravaged season a year ago with sometimes no more than six healthy players, 17-1 is a good place to be. And if there's one thing Miles and the Mountaineers have already shown this winter, it's a knack for providing answers.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
20dBonnie D. Ford