MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — What a wickedly warped season that was for the West Virginia basketball team. One marked by tantalizing losses early, fragile fade-aways late and a flurry of hope-spawning moments in the middle. It tanked and spiked and ultimately tanked again, with credits rolling to the bellows of “Hoya Saxa.”
The accumulation of all that? Try 17-16. One game over .500. One-and-done in the NIT. Not one of Bob Huggins’ best teams, though certainly a rung up from the 2013 squad that was undeniably his worst. I don’t know if he “fixed it” as much as he duct-taped it to a point where it wasn’t leaking lethargy like last year.
The Mountaineers finished 6-12 against teams in the NCAA tournament field. Not earth-moving but four of those wins came against teams seeded No. 2, No. 3, No. 5 and No. 6.
It was a season made hard to categorize because of obvious roster deficiencies, though these deficiencies involved players who were recognized gambles from the moment they signed. (More on the Amazing Ineligible Duo of Holton and Macon below.) On occasion, Huggins maximized the nine scholarship players he carried. In other games he couldn’t get guys properly aligned out of a timeout.
Those moments of perplexity made Huggins question whether certain players were buying in, just as it simultaneously made us question how he was selling it to them. Somewhere between the sender and receiver, the messages must have turned to static. Will next year’s team be more receptive?
There are many questions concerning the 2014-15 Mountaineers. Let’s boil it down to the first four:
1. Does Juwan Staten stay?
If the Wannie Rocket returns, West Virginia should be an NCAA tournament team. If he doesn’t, the point guard job falls to senior Gary Browne or incoming freshmen Jevon Carter and Daxter Smiles (each of whom spent this season primarily playing shooting guard). That’s not just a drop-off—it’s a New River Gorge-type drop-off.
It’s hard to fathom Staten playing much better than he did this season, but after the NIT loss he said he’d be disappointed if he didn’t show similar gains next season.
Whether he could become a first-round draft pick isn’t immediately clear, which is why he’ll petition feedback from NBA general managers. Two things working against him are height (he’s listed at 6-1, but isn’t) and shooting range. The latter is something he can enhance during the offseason in hopes of making his dribble-drive game that much more dangerous. But for all his reluctance to shoot 3s, Staten wound up making 6-of-15 for 40 percent.
2. How much will Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon contribute?
The wait-til-next-year refrain regarding Holton and Macon only grew louder every time West Virginia was outscored in the paint. Yet carping on their absences was foolhardy given that their eligibilities were a gamble from the jump. When Huggins’ staff signed two guys with a mix of academic craters and legal baggage, there was a chance neither would see the court this season.
The risk may yet pay off, but we won’t find out until next fall. And even then, Macon inability to practice this season puts him a marked disadvantage. Will he be capable of sliding into the rotation and wielding an impact, or must he undergo the same bumpy initiation this season’s first-year players did? (And what his entry means for rising sophomore Brandon Watkins will be worth following. A Year 2 redshirt perhaps?)
Holton, with two years’ actual college playing experience as well as a season of Huggins’ practices behind him, must contribute big as a shot-challenger and rebounder.
Until they actually see either player taking the court, fans are forgiven for being leery. But recall that back in January, Huggins beamed over both players making the fall-semester dean’s list (Macon in general studies, Holton in sociology and anthropology).
3. What to make of Harristotle, version 3.0
Watching Eron Harris light up Kansas (28 points), Oklahoma (28 points) and Baylor (32 points), you sensed a clutch shot-maker coming of age. Watching him disappear twice against Texas (three and six points) and at Oklahoma (five points) revealed that his climb from anonymity to Big 12 top-five scorer takes some adjustments.
Cast as a role player in high school, Harris wasn’t the kind of prospect recruiters charter since eighth grade.
“My freshman year I played on the freshman team, and my sophomore year I played on the JV and I got moved up to varsity for one game,” he said. “I wasn’t too confident, but I was trying to find my way. I was trying to find what my game was, how athletic I was, what was my niche specialty. Everybody else was getting ranked, everybody else was getting recruited, but I really wasn’t.”
And in that respect he’s still learning and occasionally failing to handle the attention teams with extensive scouting reports apply to him.
“I have never been that guy. And now that there’s a suggestion that I am the guy, or that I could be one of the guys, it’s crazy for me mentally.”
Along those lines of keeping his head straight, try deconstructing this recent postgame answer to a question about having a bounce-back performance:
“Sometimes my dad has to remind me that it’s not as big as I make it sometimes. When you don’t succeed all the time—when you get down on yourself, and you think that the world’s over and I’m not a good basketball player and I’m not getting as much hype as this other guy, my team isn’t winning—I’m not worth anything. Sometimes you think that.
“I do care (about winning) and I’m a competitive person, and sometimes I get angry when we lose. But you can’t be angry forever. You’ve got to snap back it in.”
4. How to rid the defensive demons?
While adding two long-armed forwards like Holton and Macon should help, their mere presence won’t remedy all the problems of defensive intensity, execution and commitment.
“The core of our program has got to be those guys that are sitting in that locker room,” Huggins said post-Georgetown. “They’ve got to set the tone. They’ve got to be the people who make that commitment to being special.
“It’s about being special. Why not aspire to be special? And I think we’ve got some guys who will. I really do. I think they’ll put the time in. But I can’t do it. I didn’t do it for any of those other guys I’ve had. They did.”
Staten made that commitment last offseason and became an conference player of the year candidate and All-Defensive Big 12 selection. He needs teammates like Remi Dibo and, yes, Harris to guard better.
“It basically boils down to the same thing, and that’s defense,” Staten said Tuesday night. “That’s something we’ve done a poor job of all year, and that’s something that ultimately came back to bite us in the end.”