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How Jarrod West's Leadership, Defensive Prowess Separates Him in Crowded Louisville Backcourt

The graduate transfer guard for the Cardinals might be the smallest player on the court, but thanks to abilities as both a leader and aggressive defender, he is proving early he deserves a shot to run the show.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Louisville men's basketball program has several options at their disposal in the backcourt, and specifically at point guard.

El Ellis is a former two-time JUCO All-American with Tallahassee C.C., who can wow you with his explosive ability as a playmaker. Mason Faulkner is entering his sixth year at the collegiate level, and stuffed stat lines at Western Carolina. Noah Locke, mainly known for his ability as a shooter while at Florida, demonstrated some of his on-ball abilities during last week's intrasquad scrimmage.

When looking at Louisville's roster, at first glance, one might think Jarrod West could get lost in the shuffle. At 5-foot-11, he is the only player on the roster - walk-ons included - that is under six feet, and he the second-lightest scholarship player at 180 pounds - second only to Ellis' 175.

But, during the program's annual media day earlier this week, when asked who was the guy who had taken the lead spot at point guard, head coach Chris Mack singled out West immediately.

How could the smallest guy on the court, who came to Louisville as graduate transfer following a four-year career in Conference-USA at Marshall, be the one primarily entrusted to run point for one of the top programs in the Atlantic Coast Conference?

Well, as tired as the 'heart over height' cliche in sports is, this is one case where it applies. Mack has seen a solid crop of graduate transfer guards come through Louisville in his three years, including Carlik Jones, 'Fresh' Kimble and Christen Cunningham. While those three might have more talent, West has them all beat in the leadership department, with Mack going so far to say he is one the best leaders he has ever coached.

"Day one, he just had a pop about him," Mack said. "Coach's son, picks up things really quick. Once he picks it up, he's distributing it to his teammates. We built this thing in stages, so he was stage-by-stage, teaching his teammates, rallying his teammates, same energy every single day."

That mindset and approach has carried well beyond that first day. During the offseason and preseason, he has consistently been one of the more vocal and accountable players on the practice court. There is hardly ever a moment where you can't pick up his voice after, or during, on-court play.

So much so, that it played a major role into him being named a captain alongside fifth-year senior Malik Williams back in August.

"He's got a voice, he was voted captain for a reason," Mack said. "His message yesterday after practice was awesome, man. It's everything you want as a coach. You can step back, and you can watch him coach his teammates. They have a total respect for him again."

That ability as a leader is something that is both natural to him, and formed over time. Early on in life, it was something that was continually harped on by parents, including his time at Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg, W. Va. - where his father, Jarrod Sr., was his coach for all four years.

His parents always told him that because of his height and stature, if he wanted to ever play at the Division I level, he had to be different in some way. Since his formative years, leadership has been something he has carried throughout his career, even off the basketball court.

"It's a quality that I take a lot of pride in," West said. "I think successful teams have really good leadership from their players and their coaches. It's even more important to be able to do that now."

Of course, you can be the best leader the basketball world has ever seen, but if you don't have the ability to go with it, then you can count out on seeing the floor. Fortunately for both West and Louisville, he has proven he can play at the Division I level, and it starts on the defensive end.

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West comes to Louisville having been named to the Conference-USA All-Defensive Team not once, but twice - doing so in his final two years at Marshall. His 2.5 steals per game last season as a senior was second in the conference, and he currently has the third-most steals among active D1 players with 254.

It remains to be seen how his defensive prowess will translate to the one of the best conferences in college basketball, but West has certainly given it his all. It might be in practice against his own teammates, but he has established himself as one of Louisville's better defensive assets.

"He's a dogged defender," Mack said. "He's going to be a guy that when that ball is being handed to a player on the other team by the referee full court, he's going to pick them up, He's one of the best defensive point guards I've ever coached. He can blow up ball screens all on his own."

Mack admitted during media day that he won't deviate much from his tried and true pack-line defense, but did make interesting comments during the ACC Tipoff earlier this month. Because of West's acumen as a pest on defense, he will occasionally be used to pick up the defense in the full court press.

Will it be what Louisville fans were used to seeing under Rick Pitino? No, but even Mack said it would be "foolish to just sit behind the three-point line", and West will be the guy to lead that charge.

"I knew I had to be an elite on-ball defender, and be able to guard my position at a high level, to be able to play at the Division I level alone." West said. "Going back to, what I felt like I was a little under-recruited (in high school) and things like, that always carried a chip on my shoulder to be always be the best defender and leader I can be."

Leadership and defense isn't the only thing that West brings to the table. During his senior year at Marshall, he averaged 12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, accompanied by 6.0 assists - the 12th-most in the nation - to just 2.1 turnovers. He also shot 45.8% from the field and 40.8% on three point attempts.

West wasn't simply handed the keys to the proverbial car, however, and there has been great competition in practice for reps at the point. His greatest challenger is El Ellis, who has the ability to showcase 'wow' plays at any given moment.

But, as Mack put it during media day, Ellis can do things that West can't, but there are "things that El hasn't done that Jarrod is doing every single day since he's been here". It's that consistency that gives West the edge, although that will also be challenged once Mason Faulkner gets more comfortable with the system following offseason ankle surgery.

At first glance, West's stature could give off vibes to many that high major Division I basketball might not be for him. We'll get our first semblance of this notion when Louisville gets into exhibition play against Kentucky State on Oct. 29, but so far, he is already starting to prove to potential doubters that he belongs.

(Photo of Jarrod West, Malik Williams: Timothy D. Easley - Associated Press)

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