No matter how good they are, it’s easy for the West Virginia Mountaineers to get lost in the Big 12 shuffle.
On the court, they’re not Kansas, which wins the league every year. They’re not Oklahoma, which is coming off a run to the Final Four. Even geographically, they’re easy to overlook, with Morgantown nestled hundreds of miles to the east of their closest conference rival.
Yet last year West Virginia swept Iowa State and Baylor, beat Kansas at home and knocked off Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament. And despite a surprising early exit in the NCAA Tournament last year, the Mountaineers aren’t going anywhere.
In 2016-17, the Mountaineers are again set up to contend in the top half of the Big 12, earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and, potentially, make a run.
But if West Virginia is going to break through and return to the Final Four, it will do so with some new on-court leadership. Leading scorer Jaysean Paige graduated in May and big man Devin Williams has moved on to play professionally in Australia. Those two combined for 34 percent of the Mountaineers’ points per game and were the only two players to average double figures scoring.
Paige and Williams also leave a void that’s tougher to quantify. Paige came off the bench last year to will the Mountaineers to victory in key games down the stretch. Williams had his best games when it mattered most, including a 31-point, 10-rebound performance in West Virginia’s Big 12 title game loss to Kansas.
West Virginia returns a team loaded with talent and potential, but without a clear go-to option in the clutch.
That’s not to say that beating next year’s West Virginia team will be any easier than a weekend with the in-laws.
Press Virginia will return, led by Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles and Tarik Phillip. The Mountaineers ranked No. 1 in the country in steal percentage last year, according to KenPom, with Phillip ranking 28th nationally in that category.
Overall, West Virginia was one of the most efficient teams in the nation on both ends, facilitated by its ability to force turnovers and convert easy baskets. Williams’ ability to clean up mistakes on the offensive glass didn’t hurt either.
It will be interesting to see how the newcomers fit into coach Bob Huggins’ rotation. At least early on, the starting lineup could consist entirely of returners, but the Mountaineers also had three redshirt freshmen last season, waiting in the wings.
Point guard James Bolden, a four-star recruit from a year ago, is one of them. If he can contribute right away, West Virginia suddenly becomes deep in the backcourt, which would enable Huggins to play with his rotations and keep his players fresh as they wreak havoc defensively and force the tempo on the other end.
Few teams will be better than West Virginia at forcing opponents to change their style of play.
No one team should lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage and steal percentage while also ranking in the top five in free-throw rate and defensive turnover percentage. But that’s exactly what West Virginia did last year. Granted the Mountaineers will need to find answers to replace Williams and Jonathan Holton on the glass and in the paint, but if they can do that, they will be as versatile a team as any.
With a serviceable frontcourt, West Virginia can let its guards go to work. Carter turned it on down the stretch last year and will look to pick up where he left off come November. He ranked third in the Big 12 in total steals last year and was eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio. If he can become more consistent with his shot, he can be an elite player in the conference.
Miles will likely start alongside him. He posted gaudy numbers to start 2015-16, and although he slowed down during conference play, he still found a chance to shine when healthy. The highlight of his season came in a home win over then-No. 15 Baylor, in which he scored 20 points on 4-5 shooting from three.
Then there’s Phillip, who thrived in his role off the bench last year. It’s possible that Huggins will use him as the sixth man, but regardless, he will see plenty of minutes as a 41 percent three-point shooter and the second-leading assist man on the team. While Phillip was turnover prone as a sophomore, he showed an increased maturity from his freshman season.
The one common theme among the West Virginia guards? They’re all known for their toughness. They’re physical, they’re relentless and they’ll force you to make mistakes.
Adrian and Ahmad will be the two players who need to step up the most inside. They both played significant minutes last year, though Adrian was at times hampered by foul trouble.
If they can both rebound at a higher rate, West Virginia can probably get by. Throw in a hopefully improved Macon, and it’s possible the Mountaineers won’t have much to worry about.
Macon was promising at times as a freshman, but scored more than four points in a game just once after Jan. 23 and played single-digit minutes six times in that span. If he doesn’t come along as hoped, or if Adrian or Ahmad struggle, West Virginia could be in serious trouble.
If that’s the case, look for Bender to get an opportunity early, as well as redshirt freshmen Logan Routt or Lamont West.
While Huggins has pieces to play with inside, none figures to have as much impact as Williams did and entirely filling the void left by him and Holton does not seem likely. West Virginia’s best bet is to play to its strengths — speed teams up, force turnovers and bad shots, and score on the break. The Mountaineers have the talent to overcome their deficiencies, it’s just a matter of plugging the holes as best they could and letting their stars shine.