MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Basketball is a lengthy season and players go through slumps but for West Virginia University, the struggles of one student-athlete played a part in the team’s funk.
After being one of the Mountaineers’ top scorers all season, Esa Ahmad found himself in a little downward spiral after WVU knocked off then-No.1 Baylor on January 10.
The sophomore struggled to make shots from the field and at the free throw line. He committed several turnovers, including a costly one in Mountaineers’ loss at Kansas State last Saturday.
Ahmad averaged just 4.3 points and turned the ball over 10 times against Texas, Oklahoma and the Wildcats.
It was unfamiliar territory for the Cleveland, Ohio native this season. He had lost his edge.
Granted, Ahmad had a lot of ups and downs during his freshman campaign but the two-time Cleveland area player of the year had been WVU’s go-to guy all year. He was averaging 12.6 points, 1.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds a contest.
But then he got cold and lost his poise.
“I feel like I wasn’t really full of confidence,” Ahmad said. “I’ve just been listening to my teammates, my coaches and it’s been nothing but positive things.
Losing your game is difficult enough but when you team falters along the way, it makes it all the more trying.
Luckily, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward had plenty of support from his teammates and coaches.
“I’ve been on him the last two games,” junior forward Elijah Macon said. “He’s been down. He’s been down in the dumps so I tell him to keep pushing. Same thing for me, I’ve been up and down all year. So he does the same for me. We all do it for our teammates. We just try and keep each other pushing.”
“They’ve just been keeping me positive,” Ahmad said. “Elijah to Tarik (Phillip) to Teyvon (Myers). All of them. They just been keeping me positive. We been in the gym and good things come.”
And then boom!
Against Kansas Ahmad busted out of decline with a career-high 27-point performance on 10-for-17 shooting from the field.
“Esa got back to being Esa,” junior guard Jevon Carter said. “That’s what we’re used to him doing and tonight he got back to doing it.”
And Ahmad did so going against one of the best in the country, Josh Jackson, who was the top recruit in the nation last year and future NBA Draft pick.
From the start of the game, Ahmad soared to the rim. He started the game off with a tomahawk dunk and just continued to be a dominant force on the court.
“We didn’t guard him and he got off to a great start, Jayhawks’ head coach Bill Self said during his post game press conference. “I think he had 12 or 14, maybe 16 at halftime. I can’t remember exactly but he had like eight in the first three minutes and got off to a great start. He’s a good player and certainly I thought he played very well. I thought their whole team shared the ball, obviously with 22 assists and they made timely shots. I thought of a team that played exceptionally well tonight, he was probably the best player of the game.”
The Shaker Heights High School alum showed that he was the player everyone believes he could be. He was aggressive and dropping bombs left and right.
“I think he rededicated himself to the game, really after the Kansas State game,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “He wasn’t really good at Kansas State. He wasn’t very good at the Oklahoma game. He got in the gym. I know you guys get tired of me saying that but again he got in the gym. He was in the gym last night at 9 o’clock after being in there early before practice and late after practice.”
As Huggins has always emphasized, putting the extra exertion in the gym goes a long way come game time.
“He had two good days of practice,” Huggins said. “He had two good days of practice and he’s our best guy at attacking the rim. He has more size. He’s wider. He has those huge hands. They’re so long.”
Ahmad has shown that he is a gifted athlete and now he just has to keep working to become a consistent and great one.
At the end of the day, the Mountaineers will need a robust performance down the stretch from their leading scorer if they anticipate making a long run in March.