Martin: WVU Basketball Seemingly Features Plenty Of Depth, Talent
Bob Huggins has had incredible success since returning to his alma mater to take over as the head men’s basketball coach in 2007.
In the 11 seasons since, Huggins has led the Mountaineers to a 255-130 record and nine NCAA Tournament appearances, five of which have led to the Sweet 16 and one to the Final Four.
It’s to the point now where every season comes with high expectations. That’s what happens when three of the past four years have included runs to the Sweet 16.
It understandable when fans set incredibly lofty goals. After all, that’s what fans do.
But when those inside the program also place the bar extremely high, that says a lot.
West Virginia is coming off a 26-11 season that didn’t end until a hard-fought loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the Sweet 16. And from that squad, the Mountaineers must replace their all-senior backcourt, which included Jevon Carter, the best defender in the country the past two years and one of WVU’s all-time greats.
Despite such big shoes to fill at the guard positions, West Virginia does return its starting front court intact and is bringing in a ballyhooed six-man recruiting class, all of whom are believed to be good enough to contribute right away.
So even without Carter and Daxter Miles, it’s understandable that Mountaineer fans are already excited for the 2018-19 basketball season. But when the coaches start to throw out high praise as well, then maybe it is more than normal preseason hyperbole.
“I think this team, on paper, will be the most talented team we’ve had from top to bottom in our 11 years,” stated long-time WVU assistant coach Erik Martin, who has been a member of Huggins’ staff for the past 13 seasons – two at Kansas State and 11 at West Virginia. “One through eight, nothing will compare to the Final Four team (2009-10), because those guys could all switch and lock down defensively. But this year’s team can go past eight and still will feature excellent players. This should be the deepest we’ve ever been.”
Martin works with West Virginia’s centers, and he’s had some good groups over the years. But with a rotation that potentially could go four deep in the middle – Sagaba Konate, Logan Routt, Andrew Gordon and Derek Culver – this unit could be the deepest Martin has had in 11 seasons at WVU.
“In terms of the post position, when we had Devin (Williams) with Elijah (Macon) and Brandon (Watkins) off the bench (in 2015-16), we had good depth,” remembered Martin. “And then the next year when we had Elijah and Brandon and Sags was a freshman, that gave us depth at that position as well. So, we’ve been three deep there, but now we could go four deep. That will also allow us to move some people around. We can bring Andrew or Logan in at the five, which will allow us to maybe move Sags out to the four at times. If Sags shows he can defend on the perimeter, we can move him to the four for stretches.”
Konate tested the NBA waters this spring, but the 6-foot-8 center announced last week that he was returning to WVU for his junior season. As a sophomore, Konate was the second-leading shot blocker in the nation with 116 rejections. And he showed vast offensive improvement from his freshman season (4.1 points per game) to his sophomore year (10.8 points per game).
“Sags has always been a gym rat,” explained Martins. “He’s constantly working on his game. We’re a firm believer that you get better in the summer. If they truly put in the work, you’ll see that once we start practice in the fall. Sags is a very coachable player. He can work on stepping out and extending his range, but we’ll also let him know that what made him great was being who he was – blocking shots and scoring inside. We want him to continue doing that, but if he has an occasional pick-and-pop three, Coach will give him the freedom to shoot that.”
Konate isn’t the only returning Mountaineer center who is improving his game, according to Martin.
“In listening to his teammates, they are saying Logan has gotten a lot better,” Martin said of the 6-foot-11 center from Cameron, W.Va. “He’s 250, which is the lightest he’s been since he been with us and should help him move a little bit better. Logan always gives great effort. Getting a little bit of playing time last year helped whet his appetite. Derek and Andrew will factor in at that position next year as well. But Huggs always plays who he trusts, and I’m very comfortable in saying that Huggs trusts Logan. I wouldn’t say he’s going to get 20 minutes, but I will say he’ll be a rotation player. It will be up to those new guys to show Huggs that he can trust them too, so they can get some of the minutes at that position as well.”
West Virginia currently shows 14 scholarship players for the 2018-19 season. With the NCAA limit of 13, something will have to change before the fall semester starts.
Still, Martin’s contention that this will be the deepest team during the Huggins era is hard to argue with … at least at the moment. With four centers, three forwards (Esa Ahmad, Wesley Harris and Lamont West) and currently seven guards (Beetle Bolden, Chase Harler, Brandon Knapper, Jermaine Haley, Jordan McCabe, Trey Doomes and Emmitt Matthews), a couple of whom could also play forward, there figures to be battles waged for starting jobs and playing time. That’s certainly OK with Martin.
“Competition brings out the best in players,” said WVU’s assistant coach. “I would think that maybe Sags and Esa will begin the season with a leg up on the competition for starting jobs … maybe. But every other position is up for grabs. And knowing Huggs, Esa and Sags better be ready to compete as well. That’s the beauty of having a team this deep.”
This coming year’s squad also will seemingly be well rounded. It has playmakers in the backcourt and strength inside. It has the ability to size down and play fast or go big and stress defense. No one has shown the ability to dominate defensively like Carter, but WVU still hopes to utilize its Press Virginia style.
“We’re going to have shooters, rebounders, guys who can score inside, guys who can hit from the perimeter,” stated Martin. “We really have everything we need to have a great team. Now we just have to get everyone working and put all the pieces together.”