Looking Ahead At Mountaineer Basketball
By Greg Hunter
Coming off a 28-9 season, complete with a run to the Sweet 16, the Mountaineer men’s basketball team will enter the 2017-18 campaign with high expectations.
But to meet those expectations, head coach Bob Huggins has some holes to fill. Gone are five seniors – Nate Adrian, Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins and James Long. And they are joined on the departure list by fourth-year junior Elijah Macon, who decided recently to forgo his final season of college eligibility in order to pursue a professional basketball career.
Adrian (9.6 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Macon (6.3 points, 4.2 rebounds) were WVU’s starting power forward and center respectively. Phillip (9.5 points, 1.7 steals) and Teyvon Myers (5.8 points, 1.4 assists) were typically the first two guards off the bench for the Mountaineers this past season, and Watkins (5.6 points, 0.6 blocks) provided depth at center.
Huggins and his staff knew that the five traditional seniors were using up their eligibility, but the decision by Macon to bypass his fifth-year senior season was not announced until May 23. The Columbus, Ohio, native had participated graduation ceremonies at WVU on May 14, though the multidisciplinary studies major did have to finish off one more summer school class before finalizing his degree. He capped his academic work at WVU in a three-week summer school session, and with degree in hand, headed out into the world. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound player had made progress throughout his time at West Virginia. He redshirted during the 2013-14 season, and then averaged 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in 2014-15. As a sophomore, he upped that slightly to 4.5 points and 3.0 rebounds, spending a second year backing up Devin Williams. When Williams departed after the 2015-16 season, Macon ascended into a starting role, but through the first two-thirds of the year, his stats didn’t jump accordingly. He scored in double figures just once in the first 28 games and didn’t have a double-figure rebounding effort in that time as well. But in the final month of the 2016-17 season, Macon played the best basketball of his career. In the final 11 games, he scored in double figures six times, including a career high of 17 points against Texas. He also reached 10 or more rebounds three times in that span, as he averaged 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in those 11 games.
“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”
So with the departure now of both Macon and Watkins, the three-headed center rotation West Virginia used this past year now features just one returnee, Sagaba Konate, who averaged 4.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as a true freshman this past season. Though at times spectacular with his athleticism (his 53 blocked shots were the most ever by a WVU freshman and the ninth most by a Mountaineer regardless of class), he was 10th on the team in scoring and sixth in rebounding. A native of the west African country of Mali, who spent his prep years at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pa., Konate scored over eight points just three times in his first season at West Virginia and averaged just 2.1 points per game in the final eight contests. He’ll need to polish his game and develop consistency for the Mountaineers moving forward, as the two centers who joined him in WVU’s rotation in the middle last year have now departed.
The only other pure post player the Mountaineers will have on the 2017-18 roster beside Konate will be walk-on Logan Routt. That means the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder from Cameron, W.Va., could very well see more playing time than he did last year, when he was used in 11 games and averaged 1.1 points and 1.1 rebounds in that time.
The other option in the middle for WVU is a player who is as much a power forward as he is a center. But by necessity, 6-foot-10 sophomore Magic Bender may have to spend time in the middle as well. He certainly features skills but also questions. A native of Poland, Bender has the ability to play either inside or outside, but was extremely erratic as a freshman last season. He averaged just 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds on the year and scored a total of just six points in the final 25 games. He can’t be a wide-eyed rookie any more, as West Virginia needs him to quickly reach his potential.
Huggins also hoped to have class of 2017 signee Derek Culver as an option at center and/or power forward. But the four-star prospect at Warren G. Harding (Ohio) High School appears unlikely to enroll at WVU in time for this coming season because of reported academic shortcomings.
If Culver is not available, West Virginia’s interior size could be the team’s biggest concern this coming season. Last year the Mountaineers featured five players who were 6-foot-9 or better, but with the departure of Adrian, Macon and Watkins, Bender and Routt are the only two left.
As for the power forward position, Bender will also factor in there, though 6-foot-8 sophomore Lamont West appears the most likely to replace Adrian as the starter at that spot. After sitting out his true freshman season, West rode a rollercoaster through his redshirt freshman year. He twice scored over 20 points, reaching 21 against Oklahoma State, as he hit 6-of-12 three-point attempts. Then he went into a lull for a couple of weeks before pouncing on Texas for a career-high 23 points, knocking down 6-of-8 treys along the way. In eight of the season’s final nine games, he failed to score more than four points, though he did pump in 15 in a win over Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In all, West averaged 5.6 points and 1.8 rebounds on the season, hitting 35-of-102 three-pointers in total. Consistency is the biggest thing West lacked, and that has to change if the Cincinnati native is going to be a starter this coming season.
Wesley Harris should provide WVU with a solid second option at the power forward to go with West. At 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds, Harris is compared to former Mountaineer forward Jonathan Holton in terms of length and athleticism, only Harris is regarded as a better scorer and outside shooter. A native of Jackson, Miss., Harris attended Northeast Mississippi Community College as a freshman and averaged 18.2 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, while making 38-of-109 three-point attempts. He transferred to Lawson State Community College near Birmingham, Ala., for his sophomore season, but never saw any game action for the Cougars last year, as a knee injury kept him off the court. The good news-bad news with Harris’ injury is it cost him a year of development, but it also allowed him to redshirt, so he comes to WVU as a third-year sophomore.
The lone starter returning to West Virginia’s front court is Esa Ahmad, who was second on the team in scoring last year, averaging 11.3 points a game. Slowed at times in February by a back injury that ultimately caused him to miss three games, the 6-foot-8, 225-pounder from Shaker Heights, Ohio, did put together a solid stretch in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments. His best performance of the year came in a career-high 27-point explosion in leading the Mountaineers to a victory over then No. 2 Kansas in January. He reached double figures in scoring 20 times on the season, but also had five or less five times. As he moves into his junior season, WVU needs the good Esa most every night.
While Bender, West and Harris each could swing over to the small forward spot at times, and Huggins has often used a three-guard lineup that would likely put Daxter Miles or Chase Harler at that position, the expected backups to Ahmad are newcomers D’Angelo Hunter and Teddy Allen.
An athletic 6-foot-6, 180-pound native of Louisville, Ky., who spent the past two seasons at Navarro (Texas) College, Hunter averaged a team-high 15.8 points a game for the Bulldogs (12-18) last year, to go along with 4.8 rebounds. He hit 45-of-159 three-pointers on the season.
Allen brings a load of potential to WVU in a 6-foot-5, 220-pound package. He’s refined his hard-charging style in recent years to also include finesse at times, as he averaged 31.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.3 steals this past season for Boys Town High School. Such numbers earned him the Nebraska High School Player of the Year Award. His game has a bit of Da’Sean Butler in it, and if Allen can be half as good as the former Mountaineer All-American, he should have an incredible career in Morgantown.
West Virginia’s frontcourt will have to be rebuilt with the departures of Adrian, Macon and Watkins. In the backcourt, the graduations of Phillip and Myers leave some holes in terms of depth, but Huggins has a nice foundation to build around with the return of seniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles.
Carter put his name into the pot for the NBA Draft this spring, but he did not hire an agent and most all along expected him to return for his senior season. He announced in late May that he would indeed be back at WVU for the 2017-18 campaign. The reigning national and Big 12 defensive player of the year, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Maywood, Ill., also has plenty of offensive game. He’s already scored 1,118 points in his college career, and at his current pace will easily become just the 19th Mountaineer to reach the 1,500-point mark. Last year he led WVU in scoring (13.5), assists (137), steals (92, the second-most in WVU history), three-point baskets (72) and, not surprisingly, minutes played (32.0). He was also second in rebounds (5.0) and free throw percentage (.774).
His running mate in the backcourt again this season will be Miles. While Carter was the mark of consistency, reaching double figure scoring in 29 of 37 games, Miles was the ultimate rollercoaster. While he scored 20 or more points four times last year, he failed to reach double figures in 25 other games. In all, he averaged 8.8 points and 2.5 rebounds a game but it’s imperative that, like Ahmad, Miles develops consistency this coming year.
Consistency will also be the key for James “Beetle” Bolden, as the slender 6-foot, 160-pound guard from Covington, Ky., heads into his sophomore season. Redshirted because of a knee injury as a true freshman in 2015-16, Bolden saw limited time through the first half of last season, until he exploded for 17 points in helping WVU to a much-needed win at Oklahoma in late January. He followed that up with a nine-point effort against Kansas State. But he scored a total of 22 points in the other 16 Big 12 games. He’ll also have to show consistency on the defensive end if he wants Huggins to trust him with significant minutes this coming season.
Another rising sophomore, 6-foot-3, 200-pound Moundsville, W.Va., native Chase Harler, also will be looking to step up in the rotation and fill the shoes left by the departing Phillip and Myers. Harler only played in 16 games last year and averaged 1.4 points a game. But he would appear to be in line for more minutes this season.
The lone newcomer to West Virginia’s backcourt is Brandon Knapper. A 6-foot, 180-pound combo guard from South Charleston, W.Va., who spent last season at Hargrave Military Academy, Knapper is a scoring machine. He averaged 28.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.4 steals a game while a senior at South Charleston, and then proved his worth in a postgraduate year at prep power Hargrave, where he averaged better than 24 points a game.
Though Bolden and Harler could have something to say about it, it’s easy to envision a scenario where Knapper immediately starts out as West Virginia’s first guard off the bench, ala Phillip, providing the Mountaineers with some instant offense and a quick burst of energy.
In all, the expectations certainly will be high this coming season. But there are questions about the depth at the center and power forward positions, and most every returnee other than Carter needs to prove they can be a consistent performer.
This story was part of the recent issue of the Blue & Gold News. You can purchase a subscription to the Blue & Gold News magazine and the website, BlueGoldNews.com, at https://bluegoldnews.com/membership-account/membership-levels/