Look ahead, Part II: Mountaineers’ frontline well-stocked for next season

Next season, forward Elijah Macon (45) joins Devin Williams and Esa Ahmad on a West Virginia frontline that will feature three top-100 recruits.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After a 25-10 season returned West Virginia to the Sweet 16, what’s the likelihood next year’s Mountaineers can make it that far again?

On Sunday we began a two-part primer for 2015-16 by evaluating the guards, so today we focus on the returnees at forward and center:

Fifth-year senior Kevin Noreen didn’t practice or play this season following hamstring and shoulder surgeries. That culminated a career in which he appeared in 93 games and averaged 2.5 points and 3.2 rebounds.


West Virginia forward Devin Williams produced 16 points and 10 rebounds in the NCAA win over Maryland.


Devin Williams (11.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals)
Whether battling for low-post baskets or knocking down 17-footers, the 6-9 sophomore emerged as the frontline presence West Virginia desperately needed. In fact, he improved in almost every statistical metric from his freshman season.

The Big 12’s second-leading rebounder, Williams also finished No. 2 in made free throws thanks to upping his shooting to 70 percent. His nine double-doubles included a monstrous 20-and-15 in a home loss to Baylor and a 16-and-10 that helped dispatch Maryland in the NCAA round of 32.

He stands poised, unequivocally, to be next season’s go-to guy.

Jonathan Holton (7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals)
The 6-7 Holton didn’t score as frequently as coaches expected and fouled way more frequently than anyone expected. Drawing 3.371 whistles per game, the junior was the Big 12’s most foul-prone player and 45th nationally from more than 4,500 Division I players. (He joked recently about trademarking the phrase “Foul on Jonathan Holton.”)

Despite foul trouble, Holton finished second in the conference in offensive rebounding behind Rico Gathers, and his speed and length made him a key harasser in WVU’s press. His athleticism being such a key component, Holton must play smarter next season.

As for the 3-pointers, well, 64 attempts were too many for 20-percent shooter. This followed him making only 16-of-86 (18 percent) as a freshman at Rhode Island.

Elijah Macon (4.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 blocks)
The two-year wait to add Macon to the lineup yielded mixed results, as the former No. 56 recruit from the 2012 class played only 13 minutes per game. He also played through the emotional trauma of losing his 48-year-old mother to cancer in November.

One reason for optimism: He made 54 percent of his shots during Big 12 play. One area that needs heavy improvement: His 51-percent foul shooting. Expect better conditioning to help the 6-9 forward emerge next season as a better rebounder and more agile defender.

Nathan Adrian (2.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals)
The 6-9 sophomore made defensive strides, though his 3-point shooting plummeted to 17 percent, less than half his freshman average. During a 13-game midseason stretch he shot 2-of-28 from deep.

Presuming his 3-point touch returns to even a mediocre percentage next season, he can function as a stretch-4 and help WVU spread the floor. Regardless, he needs to be more active on the offensive glass, which would help him improve on only 44 free-throw attempts in 68 career games.

Brandon Watkins (1.9 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.6 blocks)
At 6-9, Watkins possesses shot-blocking potential and the ability to score on putbacks. But his sophomore season was in stop-and-start mode after a November bout with mono sidelined him for seven games and sapped him of 20 pounds. He later missed four games in February with a knee injury that reportedly will require offseason surgery.

The injury occurred during a 14-point, nine-rebound performance against Kansas State, just as Watkins sensed he “had things figured out.” When healthy, he can be useful next season as a rim protector on the back end of the press.

BillyDee Williams (1.2 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.4 assists)
Teammates raved about the 6-foot-6 wing’s shooting during preseason practices, but he suffered a broken orbital bone before the opener. sat out seven games and never solidified a rotation spot. He appeared in 18 games, averaging 7.3 minutes and shooting only 22 percent from the floor.

His best hope for more playing time next season? Raise his defensive intensity and make better use of his athleticism on the offensive end.

Esa Ahmad (Shaker Heights, Ohio)
The 6-foot-7 small forward possesses the handle, bounce and scoring touch to make an immediate impact on the offensive end. Ranked as the nation’s No. 46 prospect by ESPN and No. 71 by Rivals, Ahmad closed his high school career with a 37-point, 12-rebound effort in the large-school division round of eight.

After averaging 24.7 points, 12.2 rebounds and four blocks, Ahmad was the runner-up to Duke signee Luke Kennard for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award last week. He was a crucial get for the Mountaineers, considering he held offers from Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa State, Indiana and Oregon.

Shaker Heights senior Esa Ahmad produced a 37-point, 12-rebound performance in his final state playoff game for Shaker Heights (Ohio) High,

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