MORGANTOWN - Just when you thought it couldn't get any tougher for the West Virginia Mountaineers, consider this: Coach Bob Huggins announced Monday that Casey Mitchell, the team's leading scorer at 16.6 points per game, has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. No specifics were given, as is customary.
Folks, this is getting serious. Foul trouble is no longer an option.
Down to nine scholarship players after Danny Jennings' walk-off Sunday, Huggins' already too-thin crew is taking what seems like a daily hit (and that's not counting the punch in the gut by in-state rival Marshall last Wednesday).
And it looks like what you saw Sunday against USF - ''blah'' was how Huggins described it - might well become the norm if this team is going to continue to succeed.
The loss of Jennings was tough, but as Huggins not-so-subtly hinted, it's fairly combatable. There aren't a lot of college basketball teams with high expectations of themselves that are pinning their hopes on what the 10th man brings to the table, even if that guy has as much talent lurking inside of him as Jennings does.
The problem is, of those nine scholarship guys that remained Sunday, Mitchell was the only classic scorer, though that depended on a lot of other things going right so he could get an open look. Or if he continued to drive to the basket and get offensive rebounds and easy putbacks as he did against USF.
As it is, it's shaping up to be a grind-it-out, defend and rebound deal from here forward. Of course, that's how Huggins prefers it anyway, but even hard-core guys like Huggins like a little salt with their pepper.
Players like Kevin Jones and John Flowers are generally defense-first guys whose value sometimes is better after the initial shot on offense, though both have shown they can knock down some big ones. Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman aren't scorers and rarely look to be. Deniz Kilicli is a scorer in the paint, but he's still enough of a liability in other areas to be not considered a day-in, day-out threat. Truck Bryant is averaging 12 points per game, but after three years, you know what you're getting from him.
So what you have, and will continue to have, is a group of grinders, with or without Mitchell -56-46? You bet, they'll take it.
To recap, of the last two recruiting classes, Dalton Pepper is the only player who is healthy, not suspended, still around, and on scholarship.
He averages 3.2 points and 11.3 minutes per game.
Jennings left during the game Sunday, "never to be seen again,'' Huggins said. Freshmen Darrious Curry was medically disqualified and is no longer at WVU. Kevin Noreen was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Center David Nyarsuk never met academic qualifications, and Noah Cottrill, too, left school before ever playing a minute. Mitchell is taking a nap in the doghouse.
What all this means is 1) the Mountaineers will have plenty of scholarships available for next season, and 2) the coaches will earn their paychecks to get everything they can out of these guys for the remainder of the season.
Huggins hasn't won 682 games - I think, the game notes said he won his 682nd against Marshall - by quitting on anyone.
They've got 13 games left, almost all against ranked teams or those receiving votes in the polls. Anyone think they'll lose more than they win?
''We can't afford any more losses,'' Mitchell said, even as he was about to become one. ''We already have five. That's enough.''
In other words, don't count these guys out just yet. As it is, they're 13-5 overall and 4-2 in Big East play, tied for fourth with UConn and Louisville. This thing isn't over yet, though it's looking more ominous by the day.
Cam's the Man
When Thoroughman's in the game more, it's often a good thing for the Mountaineers. His game does nothing to flatter a box score, aside from at least three nifty passes that set up an easy basket for someone else and pad his assists numbers.
Thoroughman, though, is a classic example of why the tattered remains of this team is still better than a lot of teams with a full complement.
You'll rarely meet a better ''team'' player than Cam, who is in the minority among players who have a full grasp of what the WVU coaches are trying to accomplish.
Asked if he enjoyed his second career starting assignment, Thoroughman said, ''I don't care about that stuff.''
He's a screen-setter on offense and a set-foiler on defense. Every guy he guards is more talented than he is, but few are smarter. USF's Augustus Gilchrist wound up with 20 points Sunday, but take a closer look at the tape. Wait, do they still use tape? Anyway, eight of those points came from the foul line and the other 12 came with Cam in his mustache and he just made clutch shots.
''I think Cam did a good job,'' Flowers said.''(Gilchrist) is a good player. There was nothing (Thoroughman could do) when he makes tough shots.''
The truth is, those are the types of games Thoroughman loves.
''I wouldn't mind low-scoring games,'' Thoroughman said. ''It means defense; means I'm in there more.''
Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com