Exhibition Fills An Otherwise Big Gap In WVU’s Schedule
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Ten games into the 2017-18 men’s basketball season, West Virginia holds a 9-1 record and is ranked No. 11 in the country.
So far, so good.
But the Mountaineers still have a big piece of the total puzzle waiting to return to the line up.
How much can junior forward Esa Ahmad help?
Ahmad is serving an NCAA-imposed suspension, but the light of his return is starting loom not all that far down the tunnel.
Ahmad was suspended for the first half of WVU’s 31-game regular season. Since he won’t be allowed back half way through a game, most believe that he’ll have to sit out 16, which means he’d be eligible to return on Jan. 13 when West Virginia plays at Texas Tech.
But even Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins isn’t 100-percent positive of when the 6-foot-8 forward will be allowed back.
“We just had a meeting on that,” noted Huggins, during his regularly-scheduled Thursday morning teleconference. “We’re still trying to figure it out, and we’re waiting word.”
Whether it’s five more games or six, Ahmad could be an important piece to West Virginia’s puzzle. Last year he was the Mountaineers’ second-leading scorer, averaging 11.3 points a game, which trailed only Jevon Carter’s 13.5. Esa also posted 4.3 rebounds, and totaled 59 assists, 21 blocks and 31 steals.
“He’s our best interior passer,” said Huggins of Ahmad. “He’s probably the best rebounding small forward in our league.
“When he gets back, it will probably take a game or two to get going, but no more than a game or two.
“With Wes (Harris), Lamont (West) and Esa, that’s a pretty good rotation (at the forward positions).”
Huggins also believes Ahmad can be a huge benefit in WVU’s press. The two-year starter’s talent and experience can greatly help in that press, which to this point hasn’t been as imposing as it has been in the past.
“He was second on our team in deflections last year and either second or third in steals,” stated Huggins. “He makes things happen.”
Ahmad’s return will certainly provide the Mountaineers with more depth. WVU’s coach also hopes that continued improvement by sophomore center Maciej Bender and junior forward D’Angelo Hunter can add some more quality off the bench.
“There is a tremendous drop when you lose J.C. and Dax,” Huggins said of his starting backcourt of Carter and Daxter Miles. “Our experience really drops. We’ve had experienced players coming off the bench in the past. We lack that experience off the bench and that’s a little alarming.
“We only have 11 guys available, and seven of them are sophomores. We’re pretty young.”
Hunter gives WVU a 6-foot-5 guard, but the junior college transfer is still learning West Virginia’s system. And Bender, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, has been with the Mountaineers for two seasons, but he’s also still adjusting
“D’Angelo got in here a little late this past summer,” noted Huggins. “I think these three games coming up could be great for him.
“We recruited him because he gives us size at the guard position. We don’t have much size at the guard position right now. He’s behind in terms of the press. We can’t adjust on the fly with him. I’ve tried to get him in games when I can. But he’s not ahead of Chase (Harler) and Beetle (Bolden, in terms of bench minutes in the backcourt).”
A native of Poland, Bender has been WVU’s primary backup in the post behind Sagaba Konate. Maciej is averaging 6.4 minutes a game, but just 1.6 pounds and 1.3 rebounds. Still, while Bender’s stats may not impress, Huggins likes his effort.
“I think he’s been great coming off the bench,” said WVU’s coach. “He hasn’t figured out how to score in the post yet, but that will come. He’s played so much European basketball, where everything is perimeter oriented and they don’t play much in the post. It’s been a new thing for him here. He has great size, and he’s a great kid who works hard. As long as he keeps putting in the effort, he’ll get there.”
Bender, Hunter and all of WVU’s reserves figure to see significant minutes this Saturday, when the Mountaineers entertain Wheeling Jesuit in an exhibition game slated to tip off at 2 p.m.
A Division II program that is currently in second place in the Mountain East Conference with an 8-2 overall record, Wheeling Jesuit is the latest in the string of exhibition games Huggins has scheduled over the years against MEC opponents.
Normally such exhibition contests come before the start of the regular season, though. But because WVU had a 12-day hole in its regular season schedule this year, Huggins chose to fill that with Saturday’s exhibition against the Cardinals.
“We had a big gap in the schedule,” explained Huggins. “I wanted to do something beside just practice that long. I thought this was a chance to run our stuff against someone who doesn’t see it every day. We just needed to play.
“We did it one year with the University of Charleston, if you remember that far back,” continued Huggins about playing an exhibition after the regular season began. “It helped us. It’s hard to schedule at this time because of finals and the holidays. We just had that big gap. That was the best option for us.”