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Stardom at hand for West Virginia forward

Joe Alexander flourished when Bob Huggins brought his physical style to West Virginia and put Alexander in the post.

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Joe Alexander flourished when Bob Huggins brought his physical style to West Virginia and put Alexander in the post.

A month ago, Joe Alexander was the proverbial best player you had never heard of in college basketball.

Now West Virginia's junior forward is everywhere, as the best story on a surprising Sweet 16 team, profiled in the New York Times and Washington Post this week, with a feature on SportsCenter and an interview on Jim Rome's TV show.

Change is something he's learned to embrace.

Change, as in spending six formative years in Beijing, then moving back to Maryland for a chance at a basketball scholarship. Change, as in adding 25 pounds of muscle when the new coach sees you as the rebounding, physical presence his team needs.

Change, like going from a handful of Division II scholarship offers out of high school to having Mike Krzyzewski call you an "elite player." And that was before he helped West Virginia knock Duke out of the NCAA Tournament.

To appreciate the 6-foot-8, 230-pound player averaging 16.8 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Mountaineers, who face Xavier today, go back four years, when he was 180 pounds and off the Division I radar after his senior year at Linganore (Md.) High.

"I tried like crazy to get people to look at him," recalls Arnie McGaha, his high school coach. "We won a regional championship in 2004, made the state Final Four, and people said, 'Who is No. 20?' Even then, it was just Division II coaches calling. The kid has such an upside, I'd say."

Alexander enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and earned a scholarship to West Virginia, where coach John Beilein liked 3-point shooting.

He scored just 13 as a freshman, but started every game as a sophomore, averaging 10.3 points. Still, his numbers trailed off, with him totaling five points in his last three games.

Then Beilein went to Michigan and West Virginia hired Bob Huggins, known for a more physical style built around defense and rebounding. Alexander fancied himself a big guard, but Huggins saw a post player. Quite a hunch.

Alexander was first-team All-Big East, finishing the regular season with games of 32, 32 and 29 points. He credits his coaches for seeing something he didn't know he had and pairing that with an obsessive work ethic.

"It's just confidence," Alexander said Tuesday before boarding a flight for today's game. "(Huggins) never stopped working with me. He knows what he's doing, so all it takes is time."

For years, basketball was a comfortable way to pass time. From fifth grade to 10th grade, he lived in China, where his father worked for the Nestle company.

"All I did in China was play basketball," said Alexander, who moved to his mother's home in Maryland at the suggestion of two brothers who had earned small-college scholarships and wanted the same for him.

He has become the focus of defenses and still has taken 50 shots in the last three games. Huggins likes his even-keel approach. "Joe has been very consistent," he said Tuesday.

A year ago, Alexander didn't score as the Mountaineers beat Clemson to win the NIT. West Virginia made the Sweet 16 his freshman year, and while he didn't play — he logged one minute in the final 16 games — he learned lessons that help him now.

"Even though I wasn't playing, I was observing," he said. "Guys like (Kevin) Pittsnogle and (Mike) Gansey, I remember how calm they were in the middle of everything. They approached it just like another game. That's helped a lot."

Stardom at hand for West Virginia forward 03/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 9:57pm]
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