MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After being picked seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, West Virginia enters conference play with a 118 RPI that ranks eighth in the league.
That might seem like symmetry for a team mired in mediocrity, but point guard Juwan Staten pitched the Mountaineers (8-5) as a dark horse in the highest-rated RPI league.
“I think we’re a team that’s kind of underrated,” said Staten, emerging as a do-everything threat in his junior season. “We have a dangerous team this year—a lot of 3-point threats—and we’re still getting better.”
Averaging 16.3 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds, Staten is making a case to be the Big 12’s second-best point guard behind future lottery pick Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State. Quite a leap from the player who crossed coach Bob Huggins last season and was benched for parts of two games.
Staten and Huggins seem to be better synchronized these days, the product of offseason bonding in which the player combed through game video and showed other signs of recommitting himself. That has allowed Staten to flourish in the way Huggins expected when he accepted the transfer from Dayton.
“He’s probably as fast and as athletic as anybody at that position,” Huggins said. “I thought that a year ago, but it took a little while for him to understand what we wanted do.
“(This year) he has really bought in. He really tries to understand what you want done.”
Staten’s scoring has more than doubled and his shooting has climbed from 37 to 49 percent, but it’s his tenacious rebounding that has been a boon to a team struggling on the boards. When opposing 3-point shooters prepare to launch, Staten is spying angles and hawking caroms that kick long off the rim.
“I’m just using my quickness and athleticism to get to loose balls,” he said. “I try to get every long rebound that bounces out because it becomes a foot race and I feel like most of the time I’m the quickest player on the court. Then I try to steal any one that I can, especially on the free-throw line.”
West Virginia opens Big 12 play with a two-game swing through the Lone Star State, visiting TCU (9-3) on Saturday at 4 p.m. before facing Texas Tech (8-5) on Monday night. Those games afford the Mountaineers opportunities for road wins that figure to be crucial to any postseason aspirations.
“If we’re going to realize what these guys want to realize, we’re going to have to win a bunch of games,” said Huggins.
Though WVU is 0-5 against teams ranked 164th and higher in the RPI—and 8-0 against teams ranked below 200—Staten said he foresees the Mountaineers surprising league opponents.
“I don’t think teams recognize how good we can be,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll show everybody in the Big 12.”