MORGANTOWN - The numbers are not all that compelling, but anyone who has watched West Virginia's basketball team play the last four games knows that Dominique Rutledge has become a cog in the wheel for the Mountaineers.Finally.After being little more than a curiosity and/or a last resort through WVU's first 28 games, the junior college transfer has become a legitimate part of the team's rotation the last four.Consider:
In those first 28 games, Rutledge didn't even get off the bench in five and averaged less than six minutes in the ones he did play. In the last four, he has averaged 17.5 minutes and played 27 in Wednesday's Big East tournament loss to Connecticut.Most of the season, when Rutledge got a chance to play he was expected to play defense and rebound. Well, defensively he had just seven blocks and only three times had more than three rebounds in a game. In the last four games, he's blocked three shots and rebounded in double digits twice.And as for scoring, well, that was not even a request most of the season. He took just 20 shots and of his 11 field goals, six were concentrated in two games, one of which was mop-up duty in a loss to St. John's. In the last four games, he's 10-for-21 shooting.
The difference? Well, need is one reason for Rutledge's increased playing time. Deniz Kilicli has averaged four fouls per game over that stretch, and Rutledge's highest minutes-played totals all season have come when Kilicli was hurt or in foul trouble.
But Rutledge has also begun to produce of late, which has kept him in games. More playing time has resulted in more confidence.And that's one of the biggest things Rutledge lacked all season."It helps my confidence out a lot that they leaned toward me to help out,'' Rutledge said. "I just try to come out every game and be confident and work hard.''When Rutledge has that confidence and does the things he can do without hesitating, he becomes the player Bob Huggins hoped he was getting when he brought in Rutledge. He had six points and 10 rebounds against Marquette, eight points and eight boards against DePaul, and six points and 11 rebounds against UConn.
Again, those aren't exactly Kevin Jones numbers, of course, but that's not what the Mountaineers need heading into the postseason. They just need Rutledge to do what he's been doing of late - rebounding, playing defense and occasionally finishing around the basket."Some of it has to do with me being comfortable on the court,'' Rutledge said. "Those things have always been part of my game, but I just had to learn how to fit it within the offense.''His performance against Connecticut was an eye-opener. He had a monster dunk, made a few unexpected moves around the basket and even passed the ball, getting a career-high three assists.
But there was at least one key moment in that 71-67 overtime loss that he will kick himself over time and again. With just over a minute to play in regulation and the score tied, Rutledge found himself under the basket with the ball and almost comically wide open. Two defenders were there, but he turned the wrong way and had a clear opening for a dunk or an easy layup that might have won the game (neither team scored after that).But he didn't take it. Instead, he pivoted once, then twice and by the time he went up, UConn's Alex Oriakhi had recovered and blocked the shot. It was almost as if he couldn't believe that after a season of obscurity and insignificance, he was in the position he was in, with the ball.Rutledge, though, said it wasn't that he doubted himself or his place at that moment, though."I didn't doubt myself,'' Rutledge said. "When I did the reverse pivot, I thought I saw Truck [Bryant] open. But by the time I was going to kick it out to him the defender had kind of rotated in his way. So then I had no other option but to go up, but by then I'd drawn the defense into me.''Expect, though, to see Rutledge in more crucial situations as West Virginia heads into the postseason. He has been given the opportunity to play and has begun to take advantage of it. And when he looks around, no longer does he see players and coaches who question whether he can do what he's being asked to do, which makes a big difference."The coaches and my teammates I think just have more faith in me and they've been putting the ball in my hands a lot more,'' Rutledge said. "That has a lot to do with it, plus they help me out a lot as far as being confident on the court and letting me play my game.''
BRIEFLY: As of midday Saturday, all of the major so-called bracketologists still had West Virginia in the 68-team NCAA tournament field. ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports' Jerry Palm both had the Mountaineers as a No. 10 seed on Friday, although Palm dropped WVU to a No. 11 seed on Saturday.USA Today's "Bubble Tracker'' had WVU on its bubble watch but still rather solidly in the field, citing more Top 50 wins (five) and a higher strength of schedule rating (No. 15) than virtually all other teams considered to be on the bubble.The tournament pairings will be announced shortly after 6 p.m. today.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1