By Dave Ackermann
The WVU Mountaineer Men’s Basketball Team has certainly had its ups and downs; that is for sure. Toppling teams like Virginia when they were ranked #7 (on the road), to defeating #1 ranked Baylor and #2 ranked Kansas at home (something Kentucky could not get done) and all by double digits is the upside. But the team also suffered several close losses to unranked teams like Temple (on a neutral court), Oklahoma (at home), Texas Tech and most recently Kansas State (both on the road). All four of the team’s losses are by a total of 11 points and two were in overtime.
So at 17-4 (5-3 Big 12), in many games, WVU has looked unstoppable, especially in the big victories over ranked teams. In some games, the Mountaineers have looked very sloppy, very laid back and in some cases lacking energy..
So many fans and pundits are asking, “what is WITH this team”? The better question might be “what is IN this team”? Let’s look at the overall roster first, then investigate experience, size and physical stamina, skill and development, attitude and focus, and lastly the coaching staff that mentors all of them:
- Jevon Carter, Junior Guard (Starter)
- Daxter Miles Jr., Junior Guard (Starter)
- Nathan Adrian, Senior Forward (Starter)
- Brandon Watkins, Senior Forward (Starter)
- Esa Ahmad, Sophomore Forward, (Starter)
- Teyvon Myers, Senior Guard (In Rotation)
- Tarik Phillips, Senior Guard (In Rotation)
- Elijah Macon, Junior Forward, (In Rotation)
- Sagaba Konate, Freshman Forward (In Rotation)
- Lamont West, Red shirt Freshman Forward (In Rotation)
- Maciej Bender, Freshman Forward (In Rotation)
- James “Beetle” Bolden, Red shirt Freshman Guard (Sub)
- James Long, Senior Guard (Sub)
- Chase Harler, Freshman Guard (Sub)
- Logan Routt, Red Shirt Freshman Forward (sub)
At first glance of the roster, starters include two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore backed up by six players that rotate in, including two more seniors, a junior, a red shirt Freshman and two true Freshmen.
Senior Nathan Adrian is the only 4 year starter on this team. He started 18 games as a true freshman and appeared in all 33 games, and 4 as a sophomore, (appearing in all 35 games), before returning as a junior and earning 16 starts again while appearing in all 35 games. He has started all 21 games for the Mountaineers this season and is by far the senior leader on and off the floor. Averaging 28.4 minutes per game, he hits 43.5% of his field goal attempts (30% from 3 point range) and is a 73% foul shooter so far this season. He gets 6.3 rebounds per game and is second on the team (to Jevon Carter) in assists with 67 in 21 games.
Junior Jevon Carter came on the scene as a true freshman and started 4 games and appeared in all 35 in 2014-2015 season and was named to the all Big 12 Defensive team as both a freshman and a sophomore. Last season he started all 35 games as a point guard and led the team with 114 assists, 67 steals and 27.7 minutes per game. This season he is the “go to scorer” averaging 12.2 points per game and already leads the Big 12 with 64 steals to date. Jevon may well be the best defender in the Big 12 if not all of college basketball. He is currently averaging 29.6 minutes per game and shooting 44% from the field (over 33% from 3 point line) while making 75% of his free throws.
Sophomore Esa Ahmad is the wildcard in the WVU offensive scheme of things. The 2014-2015 ESPN Top 45 ranked recruit was heralded into the Coliseum last season and started all 34 games in which he played as a true freshman.He played only 18.1 minutes per game, averaging about 5 points a game (4.9) and 2.7 rebounds per game last season. This season Esa has started all 21 games so far and is averaging 12.1 points per game, shooting almost 51% from the field (.508). He makes over 36% of his 3 point attempts and shoots 63.4% from the foul line. His 27 points versus Kansas were huge in the 16 point victory over the Jayhawks.
Senior Brandon Watkins is a whole different situation. He started only one game coming into this season (as a freshman) but appeared in 32 games. Brandon suffered a season ending knee injury as a sophomore that limited him to appearing in only 23 games that season and 23 games in his junior season (missing the first 6 games while on the mend from the knee surgery).Brandon has started 8 of the 20 games he has appeared in so far this season and averages 15.1 minutes per game. Watkins averages 6.6 points per game while averaging almost 4 rebounds per game (3.9). He is second on the team in blocks(to Konate) with 15.
Junior Daxter Miles Jr. is the perfect back-court mate for Jevon Carter and the Mountaineer offense with his ability to attack the basket from the lane. As a true freshman in 2014-2015 season he started all 35 games and averaged 7.3 points per game while averaging 20.5 minutes of court time. As a freshman he helped make Press Virginia possible while he hit 41 3 point field goals on the season with 34 assists and 38 steals. Last season he averaged 9.4 points per game playing 24.9 minutes per game and getting 43 assists and 46 steals. He also made 42.7% of his shots from the field. This season he has started 15 of 18 games played and is shooting almost 50% from the field (.489) while averaging 10.2 points per game.
So the current starting five have plenty of game experience, starts and iron men in Adrian and Carter. They are the top of Press Virginia full court pressure from in bounds to traps in the half court. Ahmad and Miles Jr. are perfect compliments to this duo offensively and defensively with 145 steals among these four. Watkins and another pair in the rotation figure heavily in the total balance:
Tarik Phillips Elijah Macon (Photo Credit WVUsports.com)
Senior Tarik Phillips (6 starts and 21 appearances) and Junior Elijah Macon (12 starts and 19 appearances) currently form that pair mentioned above. Phillips arrived on campus a a Juco Transfer with three years eligibility and appeared in 34 games for the Mountaineers as a sophomore and in all 35 games as a junior when he averaged 9.3 points per game. This season, Phillips is averaging 22.5 minutes per game and is second on the team (to Carter) in steals with 34. He is currently averaging 9.1 points per game shooting just under 47% from the field (46.9)
Macon has the most starts of any player that is currently rotating in for the Mountaineers with 12 starts. He will undoubtedly get more this season. He started only one game as a freshman and a sophomore, however appeared in 69 total games across those two seasons. He is currently averaging 12 minutes a game and almost 5 points (4.9) while collecting 3 rebounds a game.
The remainder of the four players rotating in have much less experience:
Teyvon Myers Lamont West (Photo Credit WVUsports.com)
Senior Teyvon Myers was the leading scorer (25.0 points per game) in Junior College but transferred to WVU with only two years to play. He was used sparingly at WVU as a junior playing only 8.6 minutes per game and averaging 2.8 points per game and reaching double figures (10 points) in a game only once. He has appeared in all 21 games this season and gets 14.7 minutes per game completing the fourth tandem in the WVU back court. He is scoring 7.3 points per game coming off the bench. It should also be mentioned that Senior James Long, a former WV High School Gatorade player of the year is as pure a shooter as anybody on this team and contributes when called upon. He also provides spirited leadership by example.
Red shirt Freshman Lamont West did not play in competition last season but was able to practice with the team. At 6’8 Lamont is the future Esa Ahmad on this team, however, he is getting about 10 minutes per game this season, averaging 5.8 points per game and almost 2 rebounds per game. Another Red shirt freshman James “Beetle” Bolden has appeared in 13 games and averages almost 4 points a game (3.8) and shoots 50% from 3 point land.
Sagaba Konate Maciej Bender (Photo Credit WVUsports.com)
Freshmen Sagaba Konate and Maciej Bender are definitely development projects along with other Freshmen Chase Harler (Guard) and Logan Routt (Forward). Konate is getting the major minutes of this group (11.3 minutes per game) and has hauled down 61 rebounds, and leads the team in blocked shots with 30, while scoring almost 5 points a game (4.9). Konate also has 1 start and has appeared in all 21 games.
So experience is pretty good but once you get deep in the rotation and depending on the combinations, inexperience can lead to sloppiness. Huggins Press Virginia style calls for great depth. Inexperience can make that look bad from time to time.
Grade: Up from a B- to a B
Size and Physical Stamina:
There is no doubt that there has been a determined recruiting goal to attract and recruit bigger and stronger players. Forwards now average a little under 6’9 and 235 pounds. Guards average about 6’2 and 189 with Bolden and Long pulling that down from 6’3 and 200. Speed is good to great all around at the guard spots. Physical stamina is about as good as a team can get when you consider what is asked of this team over 40 minutes of hell defensively.
Travel issues have a serious effect on energy. You all have heard Bob Huggins refer to this in his post game reports from time to time. 9:00 PM games in a different time zone and all night travel and getting back into Morgantown at 5:00 AM in the morning and having to attend classes can cause energy losses. This is going to happen at least three more times this season on the road and we owe it all to the TV Partners. Watch this space.
Grade: Up from B to B+
Skill and Development:
Skill levels across this team were improved over the past three years of recruiting. Nobody can question Jevon Carter and Dexter Miles as a starting back-court. In fact, Jay Bilas has stated that they might be the all-around best in the country. Nobody can question the skill of ESPN top 45 recruit Esa Ahmad two years ago; he is and will be a special talent. Lamont West was highly recruited and arguably has a very solid skill set. Tarik Phillips and Teyvon Myers have great guard skills as well.
Turning to Development, can you think of a better development story than forward Nathan Adrian. He has developed an all around skill set both offensively and defensively. He is doing things most fans and pundits just never expected fro the Morgantown native. Then there are forwards Macon and Watkins; probably not as developed as Huggins would prefer, but vastly improved no doubt about it. There are other players undergoing serious development at this time, getting stronger, faster, more skilled, more athletic and making contributions. Konate and Bender fit this bill to a tee, Then you have younger players like guards Bolden and Harler and forward Logan Routt at 6’11 and 250.
It’s all going on around a great Practice Facility that raised the bar.
Grade: Up from a C+ to a B+
Attitude and Focus:
When you are dealing with 16 young men ages 18 – 21 or so, being able to create a great attitude is a big chore with so many individual expectations. If you talk to most head coaches in any sport, attitude depends so much on a young man or woman accepting their role on the team. If that happens, your team can have a great attitude. This team seems to have a great attitude. Focus seems to be their problem from time to time. Its easy to lose focus at this age after a big win, and yes, even after a disappointing loss. Getting team focus back to where it needs to be is a key to success in any sport once you have the good to great attitude. This team loses focus from time to time, but the attitude is great for the majority. They respond when challenged most times.
Grade: A- up from a B+
Coaching Staff (mentoring):
When you have a Head Coach that is a Legend and has won 800+ games and only 8 coaches have ever done better, you have something very special. Bob Huggins is very special and he has one of the most tenured and experienced coaching staffs in college basketball.
Huggins is a great teacher, a great motivator, a great family man. He is dedicated to his team and staff, loyal and very supportive of his University (which just happens to be his Alma Mater). His coaching staff inspires the players, builds solid leadership and success; they are all developers of both skills and talent. If you talk to these players, they love their coaches; they love West Virginia University and they are all willing to work very hard for the most part.
When they slack off, they hear about it. They are told in order to improve, they need more time in the gym, more individual skill development. It needs to be second nature and not thinking as much as doing. Leaders on the staff and on the court will help them think.
I would also be deficient in not extending credit to the strength and conditioning coaches who spend time during the off season, but really all year around, trying to maintain the players conditioning and strength. Its a big job for them and the players development.
Grade: Up from A to A+
So the Mid Term Report is a B+ and trending towards an A- regardless of what pundits and the fan base might say differently; its not an A yet because of some lapses in focus and some sloppiness that led this team to lose 4 games by a total of 11 points. Yes, they could easily be 21-0 by some pundits and critics of results, including me.
The season still has many games to play in conference and in the NCAA’s. Yes this team will go to the NCAA’s. No, it is not a given. These young men will earn it in my humble opinion.