MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Where does the departure of Devin Williams leave West Virginia basketball next season? Probably out of the preseason top 15, though this year’s team proved how irrelevant such projections are.
Here’s my guess at what the loss of Big Goggles means from individual and team perspectives:
Elijah Macon must earn more minutes. They won’t be gifted, however. He played 13.1 minutes as a freshman and 13.2 as a sophomore—barely saw the court at all against Stephen F. Austin. At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Macon is not as brawny as Williams, he can’t range outside to make 18-foot jumpers, his hands come into question when he routinely fumbles interior passes, and his 48-percent free-throw shooting necessitates going granny-style,
Yet Macon is longer and bouncier than Williams, and has more upside than has been commanded of him. Though he’ll be only a junior next season, Macon will be five years removed from high school graduation and has the maturity to develop into a functional post player.
Watkins-Konate or Konate-Watkins? The 6-9 Brandon Watkins will be a senior, returning from two injury-diminished seasons. Does he exhibit the shot-blocking ability and energy he flashed as a freshman, or does he cede time to an actual freshman, the 6-8 Sagaba Konate? The Mali native now residing in Hermitage, Pa., could resemble Williams’ physique after a couple years of college weight training.
Boards, boards, boards. After ranking second nationally in offensive rebounding and eight in rebounding margin, West Virginia could be considerably softer on the glass next season. Williams (9.5) and Jonathan Holton (7.6) were tag-teamers on tip-ins and combined with senior Jaysean Paige to grab more than 52 percent of West Virginia’s total rebounds this season. That’s a ton of tenacity to replace. The offense likely won’t be able to rely on as many putbacks, meaning …
It’s time for Esa Ahmad to ascend. Among the program’s highest-ranked recruits of the past decade, Ahmad started 34 games despite being tentative offensively (4.9 points) and suffering from the highest turnover percentage among the regulars. Just witness his performance against SFA—10 first-half points in 15 minutes, but played only 3 minutes in the second half.
A better 3-point shooter than he showed, Ahmad could use some baskets to draw out defenders, which would amplify the explosive driving ability he showed late in the season. There’s copious amounts of free throws awaiting him once he attacks consistently, and though Ahmad was brutal at the fold line early, he made 27-of-33 over the final month to finishat 62 percent.
More 3s going up? For all the difficulty Williams had finishing over shot-blockers, he became a go-to option inside because of his ability to get to the foul line more than any other Big 12 player this season. Next year, without a proven low-post scoring option, do the Mountaineers become more dependent on 3-pointers? Does that sound like a frightening idea after they ranked 269th this year nationally at 32 percent?
It could be frightening if Jevon Carter endures another slump like the one he suffered in conference play. But we presume he’ll be more comfortable moving back to off-guard once Beetle Bolden is capable of spelling Tarik Phillip at the point. Nathan Adrian has regained his deep stroke and 6-10 newcomer Maciej Bender features inside-out skills to become a stretch four.
These guys won’t suddenly turn into Iowa State, but they won’t necessarily look like the team that dropped its final two games to Kansas and SFA while making 5-of-31 from 3-point range.
Relax, every Big 12 team is losing somebody. Buddy Hield is one of four Sooners seniors ending their careers at the Final Four. Perry Ellis is done at Kansas, where Wayne Selden could test the draft waters and Cheick Diallo is likely NBA-bound after playing only 7 minutes per game. Georges Niang has finished his run in Ames and Monte Morris may exit alongside him. Baylor’s Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers won’t have to share the same huddle any longer. Texas loses five seniors and possibly junior playmaker Isaiah Taylor.
College rosters, perpetually in the spin-cycle, are always retooling and next year’s Big 12 will feature a ton of vacancies at the top.