MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For three-plus seasons he has harassed, pestered and rerouted ballhandlers, and now Jevon Carter stands two steals away from the West Virginia career record.
That mark could fall Thursday night when the No. 19 Mountaineers (6-1) welcome NJIT (4-2) to the WVU Coliseum for a nonconference game.
The reigning NABC defensive player of the year, Carter averages 4.4 steals per game this season, bringing his career total of 249 within reach of the 251 steals by Greg Jones from 1980-1983.
“It just means I play hard on defense,” Carter said.
The point guard’s attitude and aggressive defense set the standard when “Press Virginia” rallied from 16 points down in the second half to beat Missouri 83-79 at the AdvoCare Invitational championship on Sunday night.
“A lot of guys don’t like playing defense, but he actually likes it,” said guard Daxter Miles. “It’s all about the will.”
Turning defense into transition baskets, Carter scored a career-high 29 points against Missouri. He’s averaging 18.1 points and 5.4 assists for a team on a six-game wining streak, while Miles (15.9 points) is down this part by attacking the basket and benefiting from more free-throw attempts. He made 14-of-15 against Mizzou on his way to scoring 28 points.
They are seniors shouldering the burden until West Virginia’s younger role players find their legs.
“JC and Dax obviously keyed the whole thing,” said coach Bob Huggins. “But offensively we’re not very good from an execution standpoint.”
Two sophomores figure to be crucial components this season, though both have faced shortcomings. Forward Lamont West (10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds) needs to make more than 26 percent from 3-point range, and center Sagaba Konate (10.3 points, 6.3 rebounds) has battled foul trouble.
“We’ve got to keep Sags on the floor. He can’t rebound it from the bench,” Huggins said.
While the Mountaineers’ full-court trapping pressure has generated 22.7 turnovers per game, third-most in the country, Huggins thought it really showed signs of life late against Mizzou.
“We made rotations, and we made early rotations, and we did all the things you talk about all the time that we haven’t done,” Huggins said.
NJIT, in its 10th season as a Division I program and picked to finish last in the eight-team Atlantic Sun Conference, suffered losses to Wagner (60-49) and Seton Hall (82-53). The Highlanders own wins over Division III Kean as well as Lafayette (96-80), Drexel (65-53) and, most recently, LIU-Brooklyn (73-69), in which Abdul Lewis finished with 23 points and 18 rebounds.
“We’re a young team and we’re just trying to build momentum,” said Lewis, a 6-foot-10 forward who averages 11 points and 11.3 boards. “West Virginia is going to be a nice test but I’m up to the challenge.”
Guard Diandre Wilson (11.5 points) and forward Anthony Tarke (10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds) must give Lewis help if NJIT has any upset hopes. West Virginia has won its three home games by an average of 41 points.
No. 19 West Virginia (6-1) vs. NJIT (4-2)
Tipoff: 7 p.m. at WVU Coliseum (AT&T SportsNet)
The skinny: In a tuneup game, the Mountaineers could be caught looking back (at Mizzou) or ahead to next week’s game against No. 18 Virginia. While the Highlanders hung within four points of Seton Hall until early in the second half, there shouldn’t be much cause for alarm. Their victories came against teams with a combined 2-15 record against D-I competition.
Prediction: West Virginia 87-50