- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Jr., Esa Ahmad
Key Losses: Tarik Phillip, Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon, Teyvon Myers
Key Newcomers: D’Angelo Hunter (JUCO), Brandon Knapper, Wesley Harris (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: 2 - 4 seed
Head Coach Bob Huggins has firmly established an identity at West Virginia over the past ten years lovingly dubbed “Press Virginia” inspired by the Mountaineers’ relentless high-pressure scheme. Huggins has never had a team at WVU rank outside the top 150 in defensive efficiency, and last year’s squad was his best ever statistically. The Mountaineers set up in their patented full-court press on nearly half of their possessions, which led to tired legs on opposing players. West Virginia led the nation in turnover percentage (TO%), forcing turnovers on 27.6% of their opponents’ possessions – the next highest TO% was Fordham’s 25.7%, making the gap between the #1 and #2 spots on the leader board the highest since 2003. This identity, one of tenacity, toughness, and grit, is what makes the Mountaineers such a tough team to defeat. Despite the loss of some big contributors in Nathan Adrian and Tarik Phillip, WVU figures to be right at the top of the Big 12 standings once again this season.
West Virginia’s defensive dominance begins with their backcourt, the leader of which is Jevon Carter, a player that embodies the Press Virginia theme. Carter, the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and 2nd Team All-Conference member, led the Mountaineers in scoring, assists, and steals last season, and ranked 7th in the nation in steals per game. There may not be a more important player to his team in all of college basketball as Carter is to West Virginia; in addition to the aforementioned stats, Carter led the team in FT% and 3P% and ranked 2nd on the squad in rebounding. Joining Carter on the perimeter is Daxter Miles, yet another WVU guard in the perfect mold that Huggins seems to always recruit towards. Miles is a steady secondary ball handler and occasional scorer, but his real value lies in his ability to create havoc in the backcourt alongside Carter. Grown men have nightmares bringing up the ball against this duo.
The Mountaineers’ aggressive full-court and perimeter pressure style can often lead to their big men being forced to protect the paint against charging opponents once they escape the hellish hand-checking and jockstrap wedgies. This means that WVU’s bigs need to be able to protect the rim in order to fully reinforce the defensive scheme. Huggins played a stable of forwards last season at the “5-spot” alongside Adrian including departed bigs Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins, and returners Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad. Konate is by far the team’s best rim protector, posting an absurd 16% block percentage in limited minutes as a freshman. The rising 250 lb. sophomore will be relied on heavily to provide minutes at the center spot this season, as Ahmad likely shifts into the “Adrian role” that covers nearly the entirety of the floor. Ahmad is the quintessential “X-factor” for this WVU squad, a guy that many peg to break out in a big way during his junior season. His jump in production from freshman to sophomore year was clear, as the 6’8’’ forward improved his shooting percentages across the board despite higher usage, lowered his turnover rate, and improved his rebounding rate. Expect big things from Ahmad this season – like “NBA teams will be looking at him” big (assuming his early season suspension is limited to about 10 games or so). Lamont West is a stretch-four that will provide long-range shooting and should see an uptick in his minutes next to the Ahmad / Konate combo. He will be relied on to provide consistency at the forward spot while Ahmad serves his suspension.
The Mountaineers have every opportunity to repeat last season’s success thanks to the influx of three talented newcomers. Brandon Knapper, a 4-star point guard out of Charleston, WV, is from the exact same mold as the billions of other guards that have come through the WVU halls the last few years (seriously, I’m convinced Carter, Miles, Phillip, Teyvon Myers, and Jaysean Paige are the same person cloned over and over). Knapper is an electric playmaker with a smooth jumper and should fit right into the “hack the other team but don’t get called for a foul and steal the ball” strategy of Bobby H. Two JUCO imports, D’Angelo Hunter and Wesley Harris, also promise to make an impact. Hunter, the #14 JUCO recruit in the country, is a sweet-stroking wing that will fight for a starting spot early in the season. Harris has more of an inside game to him, averaging nearly a double-double during his final JUCO season. He’ll fill in nicely behind Konate and West up front.
Basketball purists may hate West Virginia’s hacking style of play, but Bob Huggins doesn’t care about basketball purists. The Mountaineers will once again be one of the most intimidating teams to play against this season. If you’re team is highly turnover prone, you’re team will be murdered in every bit of the figurative sense – just ask New Hampshire, a team that lost 100-41 to the Mountaineers last season. Teams that can protect the ball against the WVU pressure can have success, as the Mountaineer offense really doesn’t do much outside of attack the rim, rebound, and score off turnovers. The problem is it’s very difficult to protect the ball against WVU. Expect another Big 12 top three finish for Huggins’s boys and a nauseatingly long “is this the year KU gives up the conference crown” debate.