#14 West Virginia Preview 2018-19

Key Returners: Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate, James Bolden, Lamont West, Wesley Harris
Key Losses: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Teddy Allen (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Haley (JUCO), Andrew Gordon (JUCO), Jordan McCabe, Derek Culver, Emmitt Matthews Jr., Trey Doomes


*Note: Wesley Harris is currently facing misdemeanor battery charges stemming from an incident in July - his punishment and corresponding availability for the upcoming season is yet to be determined.

Outlook: Since Bob Huggins completely rebranded West Virginia basketball into 'Press Virginia' back in 2014, the Mountaineers have become a frequent flyer in the Sweet 16. WVU has marched on to the NCAA tournament's 2nd weekend in 3 of the past 4 years - but how to break through that next barrier is a riddle Huggins hasn't been able to solve since 2010, when the 5th-seeded Mountaineers were one of the last four teams standing in Indianapolis.

As we turn the page to 2019, 'Huggy Bear' and his staff will face an unfamiliar challenge - one especially rare for a program that's historically churned out elite guards more consistently than an automated assembly line. Beginning from Huggins' early days in Morgantown, WVU has never had a shortage of playmakers (offensively) and pests (defensively) on the perimeter. De'Sean Butler, Darryl Bryant, Joe Mazzula and Juwan Staten are just a few of the laundry list of names that have been the bedrock of West Virginia's sustained success over the past decade. But, as you scan the list of names populating the 2018-19 roster, you'll find that James 'Beetle' Bolden is the only recognizable name and lone contributor returning from last year's backcourt (apologies to Chase Harler).

The departure of defensive tormentor Jevon Carter and his trusty sidekick Daxter Miles will put the onus on Bolden and a collection of fresh new faces to carry the torch forward. Huggins will lean on a trio of freshmen - Jordan McCabe (#107 ranked prospect, per 247sports), Trey Doomes (#159 ranked prospect, per 247 sports) and Emmitt Matthews Jr. (#175 ranked prospect, per 247sports) - along with highly touted JUCO addition Jermaine Haley and redshirt freshman Brandon Knapper (missed entire freshman season with torn meniscus, and is now suffering from pulmonary issues) to maintain stability on the perimeter.

What the aforementioned group of newcomers lacks in D1 experience, they make up for in collective versatility. Knapper and McCabe are each archetypes of "pure point guards" who possess more of a pass-first mentality and Bolden is malleable enough to play either guard spot. So with Knapper, McCabe, Bolden and the ultra-versatile Jermaine Haley (more on him below) at his disposal, Huggins has an array of viable options to run the offense as the primary playmaker this season. And at the bare minimum, this robust batch of talent should fix some of the depth constraints that put an enormous burden on the shoulders of Carter and Miles last year:

"We were the best 35-minute team in America," Huggins said in an interview with 247sports. "I think the problem was we couldn't get J.C. and Dax out."

Given the unpredictability on the perimeter, Huggins will have to maximize the return he gets from his loaded front line. A pair of hyper-versatile 6'8 wing / forward hybrids in Lamont West and Wesley Harris are the secret ingredients to Huggins' preferred three forward lineup. When fully healthy, Huggins considers West one of the best big perimeter shooters in the country, but he played through multiple ligament tears in his wrist for a good chunk of the season - though, that didn't stop him from connecting on 40% from distance in conference play. With his size, length and ability to stretch the floor, there's a reason West has popped up on a few 2019 NBA mock drafts. Harris brings a similar set of tools to the table, so I'd expect this duo - along with the position-less 6'7 Matthews - to split time on the wing while Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate gobble up the bulk of the minutes at the other two forward spots.

After a scintillating sophomore season, Ahmad's junior campaign was a demonstrable decline. His much anticipated return from a half-year suspension was quickly hushed as Ahmad faded into oblivion down the stretch. Throughout Big 12 play, his game-to-game impact fluctuated and WVU never got the consistent scoring and rebounding production needed from their marquee talent.

On the surface, Ahmad's defensive fungibility would lead you to think he's a major asset both in half-court and full-court defensive situations, but the advanced on / off numbers per hooplens.com tell a different tale - per the graphic below, the Mountaineers were 0.19 points per possession better on the defensive side of the ball with Ahmad off-the-floor (0.91 vs. 1.10) last season:

Before overreacting to that alarming variance, remember that West Virginia absolutely manhandled a slew of inferior opponents in non-conference play (when Ahmad was suspended), which is likely skewing these figures against him. Still, the fact that West Va surrendered 1.10 points per possession with him on the floor is by no means defensible.

On the bright side, Sagaba Konate, the nation's shot-swatting supremacist, should help mask some of Ahmad's defensive deficiencies as an eraser on the back end. The interior will be further bolstered by net new additions Derek Culver and Andrew Gordon, both of whom project to be prototypical West Virginia bigs as high-caliber rim protectors and glass cleaners. As polarizing as Ahmad is at this stage in his collegiate career, his importance offensively is undeniable this season with the scoring of Carter and Miles in need of immediate replacement.

Bottom Line: Projecting how the new backcourt will shake out is guesswork at this stage of the summer, but Huggins has a long track record identifying and developing under-the-radar recruits into two-way weapons for his system. An optimistic prognosis for WVU is contingent on a belief that Huggins will accelerate the maturity of the young and inexperienced guards, which should lessen the blow of losing Carter and Miles. The real X-factor amongst this group is Haley, who is pegged as somewhat of a point-forward with his ability to pass and handle at 6'6. Huggins has already teased the idea of playing Haley as a de-facto point guard, similar to how he used DeSean Butler on the 2010 Final Four team:

“I liked it when Da’Sean [Butler] was at point guard,” Huggins said. “He didn’t like it at all, but I liked it a lot. Talk about being about being able to switch everything. We could switch everything and the smallest guy on the floor was 6-6. I liked that a lot.”