MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As No. 11 West Virginia and No. 25 Texas A&M flew across the Atlantic for their season opener in Germany, each team packed some carry-on lessons learned stateside.
The Mountaineers were coming off an 89-77 loss to Purdue in a closed scrimmage, while the Aggies suffered a 73-69 exhibition setback against Texas.
The games begin counting for real Friday night when they don camouflage-style uniforms and tip off the Armed Forces Classic on Ramstein Air Force Base.
“What a great way to get national exposure against a high-level team,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said before boarding a nine-hour flight. “It’s a big deal to treat the soldiers and let our guy to see what’s going on over there.”
More than 3,000 military base personnel are expected to cram into the gym for a matchup where both teams will be missing star forwards.
Aggies sophomore Robert Williams, after bypassing an opportunity to become a first-round pick in last June’s NBA draft, must sit out two regular-season games for violating team rules. West Virginia junior Esa Ahmad is facing an NCAA-imposed half-season ban that will stretch into January.
Good thing both rosters feature ample depth to persevere. West Virginia is the preseason No. 2 pick in the Big 12 and Texas A&M was projected third in the SEC.
West Virginia point guard Jevon Carter, the reigning NABC defensive player of the year, used an exploratory look at the draft last summer in order to work out against NBA prospects and make improvements for his senior season. He planned all along to return to school, saying his college career won’t be complete “until I win a championship.”
After scoring 13.5 points per game during last season’s run to the Sweet 16, Carter’s 37-point scrimmage outburst against Purdue made an impression equal to his disruptive defense.
“JC was pretty good,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins. “We had 21 deflections for the game and he had 11 of them.”
Kennedy and the Aggies saw first-hand how versatile Carter can be during last January’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Morgantown. The 6-foot-1 guard finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two steals as West Virginia won 81-77 while nearly blowing a 20-point lead.
“Their whole team is built around him. He’s a tough matchup. Just a tough, strong, physical guard,” Kennedy said.
Three-year starting guard Daxter Miles (8.8 points, 2.5 rebounds) could be in line for big finish, while 6-8 forward Lamont West (5.6 points) will rival Carter as the team’s top 3-point shooter.
To compensate for the absence of Ahmad (11.3 points, 4.3 rebounds), West Virginia needs immediate contributions from 6-8 junior college signee Wesley Harris and savvier play from physical rim protector Sagaba Konate (4.1 points, 2.6), one of the Big 12’s top shot-blockers as a freshman.
As many as 11 players could join the rotation as “Press Virginia” seeks to take its place among the national leaders in forcing turnovers.
“We’ve got a lot of learning to do,” Carter said. “The way we play defense, it takes some time to understand things. We’ve got a lot of new faces, a lot of guys who haven’t experienced what college basketball really is.”
Huggins said the Purdue scrimmage revealed “that the press sucks right now” despite forcing 16 turnovers. Expect the trio of Lamont West, Wesley Harris and Maciej Bender to man the top of the full-court press as Huggs seeks to replace Nate Adrian.
Texas A&M nearly overcame 23 turnovers against the press in last season’s game thanks to guard Admon Gilder scoring 24 points and beefy center Tyler Davis producing 19 points and 18 rebounds. Both players are back this time, mitigating the suspension of the 6-10 Williams (11.9 points, 8.2 rebounds).
Transfer Duane Wilson gives the Aggies punch after twice averaging double-figures at Marquette and forward DJ Hogg (12 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists) is a 6-9 junior who can spread the defense. He missed last January’s game at the Coliseum with a foot injury.
“Williams can shoot it from the high post, but Hogg is a 6-9 guy with better perimeter skills,” Huggins said. “It changes your defense because it’s a completely different look.”
Two Aggies freshmen could be pivotal, beginning with small forward Savion Flagg, a four-star Rivals top-40 prospect who looks like a future star. Then there’s backup point guard TJ Starks, who has scored well during the preseason.
“TJ’s decision-making is going to be important for us,” Kennedy said. “If he doesn’t get sped up by the press, he could be really important in this game.”
Tipoff: Friday, 6 p.m. Eastern at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany (ESPN)
The skinny: This neutral-site game will carry RPI impact into March, making it a shame that neither team arrives at full strength.
Line: West Virginia favored by 6
Prediction: West Virginia 79-77