By Matt Keller
West Virginia’s season was on the brink prior to its NCAA Tournament run.
The Mountaineers had racked up 26 wins, beaten the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the same year and again finished second in both the Big 12 regular and postseason. But for all that, there remained no banners, no hardware. Another first round exit in the NCAA Tournamanet, and the senior class would be stamped as one who often came close, but never truly delivered outside of a run to the Sweet 16 as sophomores.
“Just to get as close as we did, and then not win it is difficult,” said junior center Elijah Macon. “I was just thinking back to all those times we got close, and the loss to Kansas, the loss to Iowa State. It was emotional. You don’t get there all the time. It’s hard. And we felt like we left something out there.”
They found it in an ultra-satisfying win over Notre Dame that changed the history, both for this team and its upperclassmen. The second round victory propelled the program to its sixth Sweet 16 in 13 years, and gave it the emotional and performance boost needed to label the season a success. It allowed the likes of Nate Adrian, Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins and James Long to exit not only with 28 wins – the third-most ever in a single season in school history – but also with a sense of accomplishment in WVU’s eighth NCAA Tournament trip in the last decade.
“We just want to keep playing,” Adrian often said during the postseason. “It’s a little different because we’ve been here before. Not one time, but two times, so we feel more composed. There’s a little more motivation as a senior, knowing that if you let one get away, it will be your last time. It’s a little bit more different towards the end of the game, when it’s a little bit closer, and you’re comfortable and you start to realize, if you blow this one, then you’re not going to have another chance. So it kind of gives you a little bit more of drive to win.”
The Mountaineers internalized that drive and managed to get past a pesky Bucknell team in the NCAA opener in Buffalo, effectively eliminating what many within the program thought was still the demons of last year’s first round loss to Stephen F. Austin. They then put together among the finest performances of the season, slicing up Notre Dame offensively and playing dogged, determined defense in an 83-71 victory that set-up the match-up against top-seed Gonzaga to put a cap on a memorable year.
This Mountaineer class leaves with three consecutive 25-plus win seasons, three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, two Sweet 16 showings and as the leadership for a team which managed the most points in school history, eclipsing the 3,000 mark versus Gonzaga in easily besting the 1959 national runner-up squad’s total of 2,884. Phillip was named the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year. Adrian was, along with Jevon Carter, named to the league’s all-defensive team. The program, under their examples, recorded back-to-back seasons with single-digit losses for the first time in 34 years while leading the country in turnover margin (7.7), turnovers forced (20.0) and steals (10.0). No regular season opponent defeated them by more than nine points, arguably the best measure of truly never being down and out of any contest.
“I never want this season to end,” said Myers, the soul of the team at times. “I love these guys. I love this team. They are like brothers to me. West Virginia, it’s almost heaven to me.”
But with the heart of the team also gone in Adrian – the truly gritty give-it-all force for the Mountaineers – along with a combined 29.7 points, 13.2 rebounds and 81.1 minutes (out of 203.4) per game for the senior class, how does West Virginia begin to bridge the gap between the team that was and the team that will come to be by the start of next season?
The returning names and abilities are obvious. WVU welcomes back Carter, arguably its best on-ball defender ever. The rising senior averaged a team-best 13.5 points while ranking seventh nationally in steals per game (2.5) while being able to lock down some of the premier opposing guards in the nation. His match-up against Notre Dame’s Matt Ferrell in the NCAA Tournament second round win will go down as the stuff of legend, as will his ability to hit step-back threes and challenged drives to the bucket. This, frankly, will be Carter’s team next season, with a huge assist from veteran forward Elijah Macon. The senior-to-be from Columbus hit for 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, and the polish on his interior game was obvious.
Huggins called it a “work in progress,” and Macon has made more than any other Mountaineer over the last 12 months. Macon can man the five position and at least limit players far taller than his 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame while also being able to hit short range jumpers and score with his back to the bucket. With Adrian gone, Macon and Lamont West will be the primary scoring threats, while Sags Konate continues to develop defensively. Konate will have to pick up the defensive loss of Watkins, who struggled at times but was able to make play in defending the rim on occasion. A sophomore-to-be, Konate has the tools to score from the block, and his average of four points per game could double next season. West, meanwhile, must develop better consistency in every phase, even shooting.
A redshirt freshman this season, West averaged almost six points and two rebounds. But he ran cold and hot in his three-point shooting, and defensively he was a liability on the inside and merely adequate in the 1-3-1 zone look. Another offseason of development will cure at least portions of what ails, and West’s length and his pure shooting ability allow him to be a promising player for the future.
West Virginia also returns Maceij Bender, who will be a sophomore, and Esa Ahmad, a junior-to-be, at forward. Bender figures to see increased time after showing flashes of toughness and the ability to match Big 12 foes physically inside. Bender’s 6-foot-10 stature gives the Mountaineers needed size, and as the second-year player begins to gain confidence in his play, his three-point jumper (Bender missed 5-of-6 threes this season) should return to the form that made him a legit outside threat at Mountain Mission School in Virginia. Bender could play on the perimeter and the inside for WVU next season, but he must hone his individual skill set and be able to continue his penchant for crashing the offensive boards.
Ahmad, as the swingman, will be a key on both ends next season. His ability to score via the jumper and take opposing defenders off the dribble is a rare trait that was vastly undervalued at time this season. Ahmad averaged 11.3 points, second on the team behind Carter, and showed such an array of skills that he was arguably the most versatile player on the floor. But when the sophomore was off his game, he was prone to turnovers and missed shots and free throws, and he would cost the Mountaineers on the offensive end more than he helped. That rollercoaster of consistency needs to level out to where Huggins isn’t playing a guessing game as to what he will get on a night-in and out-basis.
That applies to Daxter Miles as well. Long the counterpart to Carter in the backcourt, Miles played more than 20 minutes per game while averaging nine points. The ultra-athletic senior-to-be could turn any game into an individual highlight reel, but was also capable of the sort of mental funk that would have him benched for extended periods. Where Phillip was a steadying influence both with and without the ball, breaking presses, making free throws, hitting huge shots as needed, Miles was an enigma who would score seven or fewer points in five of six games before dropping 20-plus, as he did in a road win at Iowa State, when he sliced up the Cyclones for a career-high 23 points.
Like Ahmad, Miles was turnover prone at times and failed to shoot it as effectively as anticipated. The Baltimore native hit just 33.9 percent from three-point range, and struggled at the line at 61.2 percent. The loss of Phillip should increase his role, even with the return of a pair of sophomores-to-be, Beetle Bolden and Chase Harler. Bolden still needs a solid season of work in the weight room, but should see increased minutes from his six per game this season. The sharpshooter has significant upside, but must gain weight and strength to match-up with other major conference guards. Harler, also an outside threat, played about six minutes per game but will need to add better quickness and defensive ability in the offseason.
West Virginia will also add a trio of forwards next year with incoming newcomers Wesley Harris, Teddy Allen and D’Angelo Hunter, as well as a combo guard in Brandon Knapper. Harris and D’Angelo are junior college transfers, while Knapper took a season at Hargrave Military Academy after finishing stellar career at South Charleston High where he averaged 28.5 points, six assists and 5.4 steals per game while being named a three-time selection to the Class AAA all-state basketball first team and the All-Mountain State Athletic Conference squad.
“We are really excited about Brandon,” Huggins said of Knapper. “Brandon loves the state of West Virginia and West Virginia University. Those are the kind of guys we want to have here. He was excited about going to prep school to make himself ready to play at this level. Because of that, we think he will be ready to come in and play major minutes with the loss of two senior guards.”
The Mountaineers also signed four-star center Derek Culver, a 6-foot-9, 210-pounder ranked 16th at his position in the nation. The top ranked recruit of the class, it appears of now that Culver will have to go either the prep school or junior college route before enrolling at WVU.