Changing Rotations: How Best to Blend Ahmad’s Return to WVU Lineup?
With the confirmation of Esa Ahmad’s return to action, the question now becomes one of continuity and blending: How does head coach Bob Huggins add the talented junior back into a lineup that has won 13 consecutive games without upsetting anything?
We’re jumping ahead a bit here, of course, because WVU still has two games to play before Ahmad returns for the road game at Texas Tech on Jan. 13. The home weekend of Oklahoma this Saturday, and Baylor on Tuesday, will still be negotiated with the current lineup, but some thought will need to be given as to how best to blend Ahmad back into the lineup and rotation. Will he immediately return to the starting five? Does that risk the synergy that group has developed? Would it be better to ease him back into action at first?
None of the answers to these questions are self evident. Ahmad has been a starter since his arrival in Morgantown, with only injuries and suspensions keeping him out of the first five. If he returns there, though, that means someone has to sit. The most likely candidate in that regard would be Wesley Harris, who has filled many of the same roles that Ahmad did, with one difference. When WVU was in its full court zone press, Harris was usually on the in bounds passer. Ahmad was often a second line defender, utilizing his length and wingspan to make more effective traps. With the Mountaineers dropping out of some of its high pressure full court looks in recent games, that might not be a huge consideration, but it is one factor in determining how the Mountaineers will press and play defense going forward.
There’s also the question of how much game action Ahmad is ready for. While he has been practicing with the team and putting in as much conditioning work as possible, it’s an accepted fact that there’s no 100% substitution for playing in games. Will Ahmad be ready to play 30 minutes on Jan. 13? If not, are those minutes spread out from his starting role, or packed a bit more tightly as a reserve? Will the opponent, and the style of play, dictate in that decision? This probably isn’t a huge factor, but it is one to consider.
Finally, there’s the matter of not upsetting the current chemistry. On the one hand, getting a player back of Ahmad’s ability is important, and there’s no doubt he needs to play. Say, though, that WVU manages to win both the Baylor and Oklahoma games. Does it risk upsetting what’s working? Or is this simply a case of playing those that have the most ability, much as one would if a player were returning from injury?
There are positives to be seen for either choice. Put Ahmad in the lineup, and bring Harris off the bench, and WVU has another active defender and rebounder it can pair with Teddy Allen and Beetle Bolden in the substitution pattern. Keep Ahmad out at first, and there is another offensive weapon to be brought to bear with the Allen\Bolden pairing. And either way, WVU will have another rebounder to add to the lineup, and perhaps weather some of the foul storms that have left it playing smaller lineups, as it did for long stretches of the Kansas State game.
In sum, this is a good problem to have. The suspicion is that Ahmad will get the starting nod, and that Harris will come off the bench. That might help keep a bit of initial pressure off the junior college transfer and let him watch and learn for a few minutes before entering the game. It also could provide a boost to WVU’s press – Ahmad’s court coverage forces passes to be thrown wider or higher than normal, and allows teammates extra time to get to the ball or recover to prevent shots. He can also have an impact at the head of the 1-3-1, although that’s usually something that occurs later in the game, but again has a ripple effect. With Lamont West or Harris also in the game, the Mountaineers can shrink halfcourt passing lanes accordingly.