Why Esa Ahmad is a different player for West Virginia this season

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The sweat rolled off Esa Ahmad’s goatee and down his neck in a stream — the result of a pre-practice shootaround Tuesday at the West Virginia basketball practice facility.

His body looks leaner, stronger. If Ahmad’s 6-foot-8 frame was used in the past by Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins to be a physical mismatch against other small forwards, it appears those mismatches may be for a variety of reasons this season.

“Yeah, I feel different,” Ahmad said.

That is obvious, as Ahmad knocked down one mid-range jump shot after another before speaking with the media Tuesday.

There seems to be a new spring in his step, as he goes through a tip drill and then attacks the glass on a drive to the rim, almost like he’s some incoming freshman instead of a senior with 89 college games under his belt.

This West Virginia team may need both — the newly energized Ahmad and the experienced one — this season.

“This is my last go-round,” Ahmad said. “I just feel like I have to give it my all. We’ve got a good shot this year.”

It was this time last year when he got to go through the motions of practice and weight-lifting sessions, but knew he wouldn’t play during the first 16 games, the result of an NCAA-mandated suspension for not meeting eligibility requirements.

That weighed heavily on him as the season started, and especially after the Mountaineers started 15-1 without him. Ahmad worried his return would ruin chemistry.

“I get a full season this year,” he said. “I kind of got thrown into the fire last year. I felt good when I came back, but I didn’t stay consistent. I need to stay consistent this year and help this team win a championship.

“I think [the time off] kind of put me back. I didn’t want to accept that. Those guys had already played 16 games and I kind of put pressure on myself. It was tough.”

Now it’s a fresh start for a final year, which came only after taking a glimpse at the NBA over the summer.

Ahmad said he and WVU requested an evaluation from NBA general managers to see where Ahmad’s status stood.

“They told me to get more athletic,” Ahmad said.

Hence a new sense of dedication to the weight room that has Ahmad and Huggins thinking about a higher level of play for the forward.

Ahmad has never averaged more than 5.5 rebounds per game, even though Huggins has said in the past he believes Ahmad is the best rebounding small forward in the Big 12.

In Ahmad’s last go-round in the conference, he just may live up to that billing.

How about seven or eight rebounds a game?

“That’s the goal,” Ahmad said. “I know coach Huggins has always looked to me to be a better rebounder and attack the glass. I need to be more consistent with it.”

“Conceivably he could, but it’s going to depend on our other guys, too,” Huggins added. “It would help if he became that kind of guy.”

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