It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Hopefully, by now, Daxter Miles Jr. can live a little. The freshman guard’s proclamation that the Mountaineers would end the Kentucky Wildcats’ undefeated season turned into quite a regrettable utterance. Being doubled up by UK in a 78-39 beatdown left the Mountaineers doubled over and Miles learned a lesson in why words and guarantees never win games. The thing is, coach Bob Huggins liked the show of confidence behind Miles’ statement. In fact, he encourages it.
Huggins sought to make the Mountaineers a more aggressive, in-your-face team last season. In his desire to keep opponents uncomfortable, he employed an all-pressure, all-the-time press. It worked well enough to get West Virginia to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2011. The Mountaineers' pressing style was the biggest statement, other than Miles’ declaration, to come out of the season. Huggins will keep the pressing defense boosted by a roster that includes eight players returning who averaged double-digit minutes per game.
Thanks to their transformation into “Press Virginia,” the Mountaineers ranked first nationally in turnover percentage defense. To no surprise, they also led the nation in percentage steals, according to Ken Pomeroy. Getting easy scores from their defense helped mask their offensive inefficiencies. But there will be adjustments.
Opponents’ average possession length against West Virginia was just 15.3 seconds — the fastest in the nation, which more often than not meant they were getting favorable shots. WVU allowed teams to shoot 51.8 percent from 2-point range. And when teams weren’t getting good shots, they were getting to the foul line often. The Mountaineers ranked last nationally in defensive free throw rate and were second to last in opponents' free throws attempted. They simply fouled too much.
It shouldn’t be too hard to correct. Entering last season, Huggins had seven players on his roster who had never played for him before. Experience should help the Mountaineers get off to a quick start with only three newcomers potentially joining the rotation.
What the immediate future holds:
West Virginia’s biggest void will be at point guard. Juwan Staten was not only the team's top scorer; he was unquestionably the team’s leader. Jevon Carter and Tarik Phillip are possibly the answers to replace him at the point. More importantly, forward Devin Williams is poised to take over the leadership role. Williams can set the tone by his effort alone. The 6-foot-9 junior recorded nine double-doubles in points and rebounds last season. Williams averaged 8.1 rebounds per game, which was another strength for the Mountaineers. They return 86 percent of their rebounding on a team that finished fourth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Of course, getting so many offensive boards means they were missing shots. And ultimately West Virginia’s inability to score in half-court sets was its biggest weakness. The Mountaineers might not be as limited offensively next season. Miles, Carter and Jaysean Paige give them a trio of 3-point threats. Junior college transfer Jonathan Holton should be more effective in his second year in the system.
The Mountaineers also have high expectations for Esa Ahmad, who is arguably their highest regarded recruit since Devin Ebanks in 2008. Ahmad, a 6-foot-8 forward, was ranked 46th by ESPN RecruitingNation and can play any position he’s asked. He’ll have the chance to make an immediate impact in the Mountaineers’ lineup and should particularly help cure the scoring problems they were prone to having last season.
To that end, Huggins also signed the top-scoring junior college player, Teyvon Myers. A 6-foot-2 guard originally from Brooklyn, New York, Myers averaged 25 points per game at Williston State in North Dakota. Myers' junior college team also played a frenetic, pressing style, so he should be a good fit.
The Mountaineers will again be deep. They’ll again be pressing. They’ll again make opponents frustrated. But chances are next season they just won’t talk about it.