MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — We all know the jump from being a high school basketball star to Division I basketball in a Power Conference is a huge one for many players, but we sometimes forget that jump from being a junior college star to Division I in a power conference can be equally as challenging.
It often takes a year to adjust, as coach Bob Huggins noted earlier this off-season while talking about why he expects to see a big improvement in both Taz Sherman and Sean McNeil, both juco stars, this year over last year.
“If history is an indicator, generally junior college guys are way, way, way better their second year than they are in their first,” Huggins said. “I think we can go back and look at Tarik Phillip, look at Teyvon Myers and Jaysean Paige.”
Here is how each fared from his first year to his second:
Phillip — 4.1 points per game to 9.3, 3-point shooting 21.4% to 40.9%, assist-to-turnover ratio 38-32 to 95-71.
Myers — 2.4 ppg to 5.8, shooting percentage 35.6% to 43.9%, 3-point shooting 31% to 40%, assist-to-turnover ratio 15-16 to 53-39.
Page — 5.6 ppg to 13.7, shooting percentage 40.5% to 45.5%, free throw shooting 52,6% to 78.5%, assist-to-turnover ratio 22-31 to 43-54.
Now take a look at what Sherman and McNeil did last year, their first at WVU:
Sherman — 5.3 ppg, shooting percentage 38.3%,3-point shooting 33.3%, assist-to-turnover ratio 18-24.
McNeil — 5.5 ppg, shooting percentage 36.3%, 3-point shooting 33.0%, assist-to-turnover ratio 14-11.
All of those first-year totals are pretty similar to those of Phillip, Myers and Page.
Sherman, for one, believes he’s ready to break out of whatever was holding him back after averaging 25.6 points per contest at Collin College. McNeil averaged 28.7 points at Sinclair Community College.
He thinks the transformation began last year.
“It had to be at the Baylor game even though we lost by a substantial amount,” said Sherman, who against No. 1 Baylor scored 20 points in 22 minutes, hitting 6 of 11 shots, 5 of 9 from 3-point range and 3 of 3 from the free throw line.
He had scored only 22 points in the previous five games but after Baylor he closed out the season’s final seven games by scoring 66 of his total 164 points during the season.
“I feel like I found my stride. It was like ‘OK, just play your game, that’s why they brought you here.’ Instead of passing up shots, I realized Huggs was giving me a lot of rope and I was feeling I hoped I could live up to the standards he had for me.
“It was that Baylor game that got me in my stride. After that it was like ‘I’m finally in Division I now and I can play here.’”
That gave him something to shoot for during the off-season and he set out to polish his game for the Division I season that lies ahead.
“I worked on a lot of off the dribble things and not just being a spot up player,” Sherman explained.
The difference? Catch the ball, get set and shoot as compared to making your own shot by making moves off the dribble, forcing a defender to guard you closely while you have the ball.
“I focused on improving my defense because we are a defensive team and worked on getting my teammates involved while looking for my own shots as well,” he added.
Oddly, Sherman wasn’t driven by the criticism he had heard and read about concerning his failure to live up to his scoring expectations last year.
“If I were to have made shots last year, that wouldn’t have been an issue,” he admitted. “That comes with the territory. If I make shots, I make shots. If I miss, I’m going to keep shooting until I do make them. That’s just being a basketball player at this level.
“You expect critics to judge you and last year I wasn’t making shots until late in the season. I’m just working to be more consistent this year.”
Right now, Sherman feels comfortable with himself in the WVU offense and defense and with the role he will be playing here along with McNeil.
“The biggest challenge was trying to find my niche in the system, where I could do what I could do. You aren’t going to have the ball every single second of the game like you do in junior college if you are that type of player,” he explained. “You have to figure out what’s a good shot, what’s a bad shot. Timely shots are a big thing.
“Juco is just up and down, up and down, but there’s better guys here,” he added. “You play guys like Baylor and they are like a glorified junior college team, up and down, but they have the talent to go with it.”
This year Sherman believes the Mountaineers shooters are primed to create a balanced offense, rather than simply relying on Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, the two big men.
“Compared to last year I feel like our shooters are actually looking to score and looking to make shots rather than just trying to get it into the post every time, even though Oscar and DC are our guys,” he said.
“We realize there will be a lot of double teams on them, so we have to be prepared to take shots when necessary and be offensively aggressive. At the end of the day, that’s why they recruited me and Sean [McNeil] here. So we’re looking for our shots more.”