MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — His team owns a 15-2 record, leap-frogged to No. 6 in Monday’s AP poll, stands 13th in the RPI, and last week came within a possession of sweeping a Kansas/Oklahoma double feature.
Given all those encouraging signs, it was only natural Monday that a reporter asked West Virginia coach Bob Huggins whether it was time to modify his starting lineup.
“Right now, everyone is in favor of leaving it the way it is,” Huggins said.
The question pointed toward Esa Ahmad, currently having a statistically underwhelming freshman season. Shooting 39 percent and averaging only 4.6 points hasn’t stopped the top-100 recruit from starting all 17 games, and apparently won’t prevent an 18th when Texas visits Wednesday. Meanwhile, sixth man Jaysean Paige is scoring 13.7 off the bench (19.6 points in conference) while sinking 51 percent of his shots.
Sure, participating in the starting-five introductions is nice. Being on the floor during end-game situations is nicer. Huggins’ staff is managing roles and fostering chemistry, not seeking to assemble the highest-scoring fantasy lineup.
But what about West Virginia trailing 7-0 in Norman before Paige subbed in? Was that slow start not eventually substantial in what became a 70-68 loss? No more than West Virginia leading 8-0 at TCU by the time Paige checked in the week before. (A game, coincidentally, the Mountaineers won by eight.)
“We thought Jaysean would be able to come off the bench and score the ball, and we need someone to come off the bench to score the ball,” Huggins said Monday. “The way we play it doesn’t matter who starts. It’s the old adage—it matters who finishes.”
To Huggins, order-of-appearance looms less important than the totality of contribution.
With Ahmad averaging 19.3 minutes and Paige 19.8, Huggins has struck a balance at the three-spot. As Paige strings together more assertive performances, the question to be asked is not who should be playing first, but rather who should be playing more.
Paige played 26 minutes at Oklahoma to Ahmad’s 19, a disparity that would have been greater if not for Paige foul trouble. (His first whistle in particular, a backcourt reach-in after committing a turnover, epitomized the kind of brain cramp that sabotaged Paige’s junior season.)
Paige recorded a team-high plus-minus of plus-16 against the Sooners, while Ahmad had a game-worst minus-15. An extreme case, for sure, though not out-of-whack with the season norms—Paige’s plus-13.4 average leads West Virginia. Ahmad’s plus-6.7 ranks only sixth on the team, though ahead of Devin Williams (plus-6.6), WVU’s top scorer and rebounder.
Note here that Huggins embraces plus-minus with the same warmth he does the Marshall series. He claims the myriad factors outside an individual player’s control clouds the stat’s relevance in gauging an individual’s value. Nonetheless, it is a metric tied to team success, and as the season-long sample size broadens, any player consistently linked to positive outcomes must be truly valuable or exceptionally lucky. (Ahmad’s defensive metrics, by the way, are tops among the WVU regulars.)
Not to quibble with Huggins over advanced stats. Rather, let’s applaud him for sticking with his gut on Paige, and finding a role in which the team’s most athletic and most dynamic scorer also is its most efficient. At the outset of games, there’s a reassurance in knowing Paige is charging up on the bench, ready to lead the second wave.
And for those who still think Paige belongs in the starting lineup, there’s always Senior Night.