MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — “Throw hell to the wind.”
That became the maxim for Juwan Staten the past year as he evolved from brooding to breathtaking, a transformation that reached an apex during Saturday’s 35-point performance in an 81-71 win against Kansas State.
Staten’s 35 were the second-most scored by a Big 12 player this season, trailing the 39 Marcus Smart put up against Memphis. And though Smart is a national player of the year candidate, at least two Kansas State players—having witnessed the blur that is Staten—no longer think Oklahoma State has the best point guard in the conference.
“Staten, he’s fast. He can get in the lane and can get by anybody,” said Wildcats guard Marcus Foster. “I feel he’s the best point guard in the league right now.”
Superlatives aside, Staten has commanded the ball at crucial junctures this season—those junctures essentially being the time between tip-off and walk-off. Dominating possessions, not in ball-hogging fashion, but at his coach’s insistence, Staten almost single-handedly has become responsible for West Virginia owning of the nation’s best turnover-to-assist ratios.
And when it seemed impossible for WVU to rely on him anymore, Staten assumed an even larger burden in the halfcourt offense Saturday. Working almost exclusively off high ball-screens with shooters spread to both wings, Staten zipped through the lane in explosive and repeated bursts. His 8-of-13 shooting conveyed but a piece of the story because Staten drew 13 fouls and made 18-of-21 free throws.
The K-State defense that prefers to clog the lane entered the day allowing a league-low 61 points per game, but it proved unable to slow Staten one-on-one and unwilling to peel off WVU’s shooters. (Perhaps because Terry Henderson and Eron Harris had scored 11 points each in the first half and Remi Dibo was coming off a strong shooting night at Baylor.)
“They tend to pack it in, and when the ball goes on one side they have three people on the help line and it’s hard to get a shot,” Staten said. “But when you keep everybody spread, it really makes the defense make a decision: Either they help and give up a 3 or they don’t help and have to play great defense.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber seemed to revel in the simplicity of WVU moving away from its normal motion offense—which features every player cutting to the basket—and creating, essentially, a widespread panic in which only Staten and the screener were attacking the rim.
“Staten is a heck of a player,” Weber said. “He was playing so well that West Virginia wasn’t running any plays.”
With Harris and Henderson going silent in the second half—combining for 0-of-5 shooting and just two points—Staten carried WVU by scoring 23 of its 42 points.
“I just want to win. If I have to play 40 minutes, if I have to try to create every play—whatever it takes,” he said.
Technically, he played only 38 minutes this time, yet that was 38 more than he played some 12 months ago when K-State came to the Coliseum and edged West Virginia 65-64. That day Staten was benched following a dust-up with Huggins, and few around the program could have imagined how coach and point guard would one day exist in such trusting harmony.
Now Huggins compares Staten’s commitment level to those oft-mentioned coach’s pets of yesteryear, and the new combination of desire, conviction and refreshed psychology has yielded a terrifically rejuvenated player.
“Last year I played with a lot on my mind and was second-guessing myself,” explained Staten, admitting he worried too much about “what people thought about me or what they were saying about me.”
But he has since listened less to the doubters and more to his father’s adage—”just throw hell to the wind and play basketball.”
He certainly threw hell at K-State on Saturday, far more than the Wildcats could handle.