2013-2014 WVU Basketball Season Preview
[Editor's note- this article was prepared over the course of a few days, and does not contain information with regard to yesterday's dispiriting loss to Virginia Tech. Probably better. Would've made the tone of the piece much darker.]
Man, this year has been depressing.
Between the sudden realization that bowl eligibility might be our new measure of success in football and the basketball team coming off its worst season under Bob Huggins (finishing 13-19), Mountaineer fans are seeing their teams struggle in a manner not seen since the early days of Beilein and Rodriguez.
The disaster that was the 2012-2013 Mountaineer basketball season led to a complete turnover of the roster in the form of a whopping FIVE transfers (Keaton Miles, Aaric Murray, Jabarie Hinds, Aaron Brown, and Volodymyr Gerun) on top of graduating players Matt Humphrey, Dominique Rutledge, and Deniz Kilicli. (Vaya con dios, Turk.)
So with a brand new roster of transfers and freshmen, many fans are worried that this could be another down season with the WVU Basketball team possibly in full-on Rebuild Mode.
I say turn that frown upside down, Mountaineer Nation!
That's right, this is an optimistic preview!
(Well, relatively speaking. If you're expecting the Mountaineers to go to the Final Four, or probably even make the NCAA Tournament, this might be a downer of a season for you.)
While some are worried about the state of the Mountaineer program, there is reason for optimism- just ask Bob Huggins. Huggybear has been positively beaming in preseason interviews, exuding confidence in his young squad at nearly every opportunity. For example, when asked in this CBSsports.com article if he likes the state of the Mountaineers at this point, Huggins thought about it and said, "We're so young, but I think so. I think we're going to be a really good a year from now. Not just good, but really good."
So while a revamped roster might distinctly remind some Mountaineer fans of a particular scene from the movie "Major League" when Indians fans saw a lineup they didn't recognize, that might not be such a bad thing.
Because if we did recognize the same guys from last year on the floor again this year, we would also recognize that the team was going to suck again.
With that in mind, let's get some music to get you in the mood to meet your new West Virginia Mountaineer basketball team!
While newcomers will play a significant role on the team this year, many of the shots and minutes will be occupied by five guys you already know from last year.
The two key contributors and major suppliers of points for the Mountaineer offense will be sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, who also fall under the classification of "The Only Bright Spots From Last Season At All."
Harris somehow led the team with 9.8 points per game last season as a freshman, which tells you all you need to know about last season. Henderson averaged a point less per game, though he was nearly shooting 40% from 3-point range. Both players will see increased scoring opportunities (read- more shots) on a team that is now going to be far more perimeter-oriented than the recent trend of Deniz Kilicli/Kevin Jones post-scoring Mountaineers.
Bob Huggins sees an opportunity for his young stars to step forward and lead a team with many newcomers, as indicated in this article from the Charleston Daily Mail:
"Those guys went from being very shy, skinny little guys not knowing what to do and kind of being not very assertive to taking a leadership role. We don't have any seniors, and we only have five returning guys, so those five guys kind of have to assume a leadership role for us. It's kind of fun watching those two guys grow into that role, helping the younger guys with the things that I think they struggled with maybe initially a year ago."
Harris is a quick guard with a lightning trigger on long-distance shots, while possessing athleticism not seen in Morgantown since Mike Gansey and his 5 t-shirts under his jersey.
Expect to see a LOT of Eron Harris in this position this year.
Photo by wvusports.com
Henderson is more in the mold of a classic small forward (even though he's listed as a guard), though he's been working to be more than just a long-distance threat, as indicated in this interview with the DA:
“I definitely got bigger and stronger. (I’ve) been working on attacking the basket more, because I know everybody’s going to be playing me for the three-ball. So I’ve been working on that all summer and can’t wait to prove it this year.”
Redshirt junior Juwan Staten returns as the primary ball-handler for the Mountaineers, and for his part, Bob Huggins could not be more pleased with the progress that the second-year transfer has made over the summer. Staten found his way into the legendary Huggins Dog House last season, but the Coach has sung his praises repeatedly during the lead-up to this season, as he did in this article from the DA:
“(Staten’s) been so much better offensively. He’s not hesitating when he’s open; he can step up and make shots,” Huggins said. “He’s doing a better job at the perimeter. I think he’s dramatically improved.”
Staten has also been praised for his leadership with the younger players on this year's team. Many Mountaineer fans remember Staten being benched last season for a few games and came to partially blame him for some of the chaos that existed on the team, but Huggins has indicated that Staten came to own his responsibility for knowing the system and his role in it, and Staten himself has acknowledged that there was improvement to be made, as evidenced by this article in the Charleston Gazette:
"My whole life I've been kind of recognized as a leader. So for our coaches to say that last year we didn't have any leadership really struck home for me. I did some stuff, some evaluation, in the offseason. I looked at a lot of game film and a lot of tape and thought about some things I could do this year to help this team and to separate myself as a leader.''
Redshirt junior forward Kevin Noreen won't be featured on many Sportscenter highlight reels for the Mountaineers this season (unless he's getting dunked on by Andrew Wiggins or something), but he returns as a tough-minded, smart cog in Coach Huggins' scheme, responsible for screens, rebounding, and a general ability to be in the right place All The Time.
Noreen's most important job might be as a leader of all the young talent filing into Morgantown in the front court for the Mountaineers. As the only front court player with any collegiate experience, it will be on Noreen to guide young players like Devin Williams, Nathan Adrian, and others on their roles and responsibilities in the Huggins system.
When I read that Bob Huggins told reporters that junior guard Gary Browne was the best shooter on the team this year, my initial reaction was "Oh, sweet Jesus, we're going to suck again this year." But apparently, Browne's status as a shooter is more of an indication of his own hard work and improvement as a shooter than it is of the talent level of other shooters around him.
Or at least let's hope so.
In the meantime, Browne will provide solid guard play off the bench, providing some experience in a backcourt that is in desperate need of it. His shooting was always his achilles heel, as he has always been a solid defender and passer, so if he's improved in that regard, Browne should be a nice weapon for the Mountaineers.
THE FRESH FACES
The fortunes of the Mountaineers this season will probably rise or fall based on exactly two variables:
1) Are the new guys any good, and if not,
2) How much can they learn over the course of the season to get there?
Let's go in order of the most likely to the least likely to contribute:
A highly-touted recruit out of Cincinnati, Ohio, Williams is a 6'9" forward who was ranked 42nd in the ESPN 100 top recruits in the nation, turning down offers from Memphis and Ohio State to play for Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers.
Williams is a fierce rebounder (sorely missing in Morgantown last season after the departure of rebound-machine Kevin Jones) and has some scoring ability in the post as well, and he isn't lacking in confidence, either, as noted by this quote from this article in the Exponent Telegram:
“I know there’s not a player in the country that can guard me one-on-one down there as far as what I can do."
As this article from the Charleston Daily Mail notes, Williams' look is fairly distinctive on the court for his goggles, required because of severe near-sightedness. Don't let the Steve Urkle look fool you though, (not that it really would on a 6'9'' 255 pound dude anyway) Devin Williams has a mean streak in the post.
Post scoring? Rebounding? Exxxxcellent...
Another freshman forward will be a key contributor for the Mountaineers, albeit in a totally different facet of the game from Devin Williams. Nathan Adrian has been on the radar of the Mountaineers for some time as a native of Morgantown and graduate of Morgantown High School, and will space the floor for WVU with his 6'9'' frame and his ability to shoot from the outside.
As a native West Virginian, Adrian knows what the play of the Mountaineers means to Morgantown and to West Virginia as a whole:
"I do know how important it is because I've been a fan my whole life," says Adrian in this wvllustrated.com article. "They've gone through their ups and downs and the whole town is just more fun when the teams are winning. Hopefully we can get back to that."
Adrian's ability to stroke the 3-ball will be a welcome sight to Mountaineer fans who had increasingly grown to dread the sound of rims clanging in a continuing series of poor-shooting over the past few seasons. He's also the leading candidate for New Player Most Likely To Be Everyone That Pines For The Beilein Years' Favorite Player Award.
Dibo is a sweet-shooting, 6'7'' junior transfer forward out of France by way of Mountain State Academy in Beckley that reminds me more than a little bit of his countryman, Boris Diaw in his style of play.
He can put it on the floor, he can shoot from outside, and he can bang in the post- not bad for a guy that came to basketball relatively late in life before some small-school experience at Mountain State and Casper State before that. Bob Huggins saw in him an ability to shoot and guard- two abilities that will ensure that he sees some playing time in gold and blue this year. (It's worth noting here that Dibo was the star of game for the Mountaineers in the disheartening loss to Virginia Tech yesterday, scoring 17 points on 50% shooting from the floor.)
Watching this 6'9'' (7 feet even with the hair) freshman on the floor for the Mountaineers so far this season has allowed my little heart to pitter patter, dreaming of days to come of someone on the team that can ACTUALLY BLOCK SHOTS. The Mountaineers haven't had anyone with the ability to send a shot from whence it came of Watkins' ability since D'Or Fisher (with apologies to Sir Wellington Smith.)
Watkins is an athletic big that can disrupt and re-direct shots in the paint, while also possessing more touch than you would think a shot blocker of his caliber would have. He drew interest from major programs like Kansas, Florida, and Clemson before signing with the Mountaineers.
While he's definitely a project that could stand to add some bulk to his 235 pounds (and will definitely add that bulk if he follows the same training regimen as other Mountaineers in Bob Huggins program before him), Watkins will play and contribute immediately, particularly in games against teams with larger front courts. (So far his major adjustment will be to collegiate officiating, as he's been in foul trouble relatively quickly in every game so far this season.)
GET THAT S*** OUT!
Another freshman, Connor is a 6'1'' guard out of Shady Spring, West Virginia that turned down a scholarship offer to Radford to be a preferred walk-on at WVU- volunteering for a reserve role he hopes will turn into soemething bigger down the road, as illustrated in this interesting article from the Register Herald.
Connor can shoot from the outside and pass as well, but his time on the floor is probably going to be limited as he learns the collegiate game, builds strength, and learns to play defense at this level.
THE FRESH FACES THAT PROBABLY WON'T PLAY
Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton are two highly-touted players eagerly awaiting their opportunity to suit up for the Mountaineers, though both have encountered eligibility problems with the NCAA. Macon is in eligibility purgatory at the moment, falling victim to something known as "partial eligibility."
WVU fans have been waiting for Elijah Macon for a while, one of Bob Huggins' highest-ranked recruits since he's been at WVU. He's had problems qualifying academically, a member of the 2012 class who sat out a year at a prep school. He isn't even practicing with the team at the moment (he also had some injury concerns), and isn't expected to see any time this season, with the hope that the rigorous courseload at WVU isn't too much for him to qualify next season. (Only a moderate degree of sarcasm there.)
Junior college transfer Jonathan Holton was also considered a prized recruit and has been practicing with the team, but, similar to Macon, his own eligibility concerns make it likely that he'll have to redshirt this season, leaving the Mountaineers thinner in the front court than Bob Huggins expected to be this season.
(Translation- you know these new, ridiculous, ticky-tack rules that are leading to 30 fouls per half per team? That's not going to help us in the post.)
Tyrone Hughes and Greenbrier East High School graduate Richard Romeo are two walk-ons that probably won't see a meaningful minute this season, but more power to them for being Mountaineers. It's better than being something else.
Long-time readers at the Couch know what a special thing these season predictions have been in the past. (If not, just search "Season Prediction" in this article from 2 seasons ago. Finished reading yet? I've been pretty effing good at this, right?)
Last year, out of pure laziness, I neglected to post a season prediction and preview for the Mountaineers for the first time since 2004. (Seriously. We've been around for a while.)
That laziness turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I would have predicted last year's team to go to the NCAA Tournament with about 10 more wins than they actually finished with. And why not? Bob Huggins had never failed to get the Mountaineers to the Tournament, no matter the roster or the doom and gloom predicted by many Mountaineer fans.
Unfortunately, last year had too much infighting, too many guys trying to get theirs, too much selfishness for Bob Huggins or any other coach to turn around. Some blamed it on being in the Big 12 for the first year, but if you think that was harder competition than the Big East pre-2012, you are probably too stupid to have made it this far in an article with words. Did you get here by accident? Go play with your sticks in the yard.
As of this writing, the Mountaineers are 1-1 with a win over a frisky Mount St. Mary's and a road loss to a Virginia Tech team that might not make the NIT this year, despite a 17 point Mountaineer lead in the first half.
And I don't care one bit about that loss.
This Mountaineer team is actually going to be fun to watch, folks. The shooting is already 4 times better than it was last season with legitimate outside threats like Adrian, Henderson, Harris, and Dibo. Interior defense and rebounding are far more intimidating with Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins than they ever were with Aaric Murray spending his time shooting 3's and the Turk in the post.
It is a VERY young team, so I tend to agree with Bob Huggins' assessment in his recent press conference that the team will be better this year, but REALLY good next year.
They will still have problems with rotation on defense, dumb fouls, errant passes, and all the other hallmarks of inexperienced teams. But at least we can watch them grow this season, giving us more passion and skill than we saw in last year's borderline unwatchable group of me-first Mountaineers.
I wouldn't be shocked to see this team make the NCAA Tournament, but I think predicting that might be expecting a bit too much out of this talented, but extremely young group of players. In the end, I think they start slow, but gradually get with the program as the season progresses.
OFFICIAL WMITC PREDICTION:
NIT Appearance, 17-13 record
Enjoy the season, folks. It should be a lot more fun than last season.
And hopefully when we get to the end of the season, we won't have to think about the other reference from "Major League" that might apply:
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Posted: 11/18/2013 12:15 pm Updated: 11/18/2013 12:15 pm
From: Northern WV
Re: 2013-2014 WVU Basketball Season Preview
"We're so young, but I think so. I think we're going to be a really good a year from now. Not just good, but really good."
This comment alone is reason for optimism. Huggins doesn't throw statements like this around very often. This team has already looked more like a "team" this year than at any point last year. Very excited to see these young guys develop into great players.