Ahmad’s Return Bolsters WVU Lineup

Ahmad’s Return Bolsters WVU Lineup

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It is difficult to imagine that West Virginia finds itself the No. 2 team in the nation, having won its last 15 games and being the only undefeated team in Big 12 play thus far in the season, considering the Mountaineers have done all this without one of their best players, Esa Ahmad.

Ahmad was sentenced to half a season in the NCAA jail when he was suspended for the first half of the season, but after missing 16 games, the junior from Cleveland, who has started 66 games during his career, will make his delayed debut on Saturday in a key game at Texas Tech.

Texas Tech went into Tuesday night’s action tied with WVU in the conference standings at 3-0, but was stung by Oklahoma when Trae Young scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half to lead the Sooners to victory.

WVU, meanwhile, was surviving a physical, low-scoring conflict with Baylor, getting a late 3-pointer from Jevon Carter, then holding their breath as a Manu Lecomte 3 at the buzzer came up short.

So now, for the first time this year, WVU goes to full strength with Ahmad expected to step into the starting lineup in place of first-year player Wesley Harris, who will come off the bench on this WVU team that has been existing off its depth despite Ahmad’s absence.

Coach Bob Huggins says he believes Ahmad is ready to go.

“He’s played well in practice is all I know,” Huggins said.

He expects to see an immediate impact from him.

“I assume he would. He made an impact a year ago. I would assume he would again,” Huggins theorized. “I worry about his conditioning. He’s practiced with us, you know, and he really hasn’t practiced with the guys who played the most. He’s played against those guys.”

That, though, shouldn’t keep him from moving right in.

“The thing I like most about Esa is he knows how to play,” Huggins said. “He may not be at the top of his game come Saturday, but it won’t be long after that he will be. He’s the best rebounding small forward in our league, not even close.”

Considering that last time out, against Baylor, WVU was outdone on the boards by the longer Baylor team 44-38, that aspect of Ahmad’s game will be welcomed the most.

Ahmad made huge strides from his freshman season to his second, going from averaging 4.9 points a game and 2.7 rebounds per game to averaging 11.3 while increasing his shooting percentage from the floor, from 3-point range and the free throw line.

His teammates are eager to get him back into the mix.

“We get a lot better,” said sophomore forward Lamont West. “He brings defense and athleticism and more points to the team. He’s a vet and he brings maturity to the team. He’s a very important part of the team.”

When asked what Ahmad brings to the team senior guard Daxter Miles Jr. gave a wide smile.

“He has a big presence,” he said. “He can play down low and can stretch it out and he gives us more length.”

That length may be important in the Mountaineer press, which has not been the same as it was the last couple of years, lacking length from the departures of Nate Adrian and Jonathon Holton.

Ahmad’s presence might allow Huggins to turn the press up a notch or two, while also helping with the depth.

Already, Huggins has gotten strong minutes out of Harris, who now figures to come off th bench, and fellow newcomer Teddy Allen, who suffered through a tough night against Baylor after having having scored 15, 22 and 20 points in his previous three games.

In the Baylor game, Allen could not hit a shot, taking three, and got in early foul trouble and finished with four fouls and just five minutes on the court.

And Ahmad having a game under his belt figures to be very important come Monday night when Kansas comes to the Coliseum for a 9 p.m. contest in what could be one of the season’s highlights.