It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: West Virginia Mountaineers.
West Virginia managed to fall in next season's polls without having played a game. The Mountaineers were all set to be a preseason top 15 team returning eight of their top 10 players from a team that -- despite its flameout in the NCAA tournament first round -- finished second in the Big 12. That was before Devin Williams decided to sign with an agent last month and enter the NBA draft. The 6-foot-9 forward was the Mountaineers’ leading rebounder (9.5) and second leading scorer (13.3) from last season. Williams became the first West Virginia player since Devin Eubanks in 2010 to forgo his remaining eligibility to turn pro. Eubanks was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft by the Lakers, but Williams is not projected to be picked. And it leaves the Mountaineers in a tough spot.
Once West Virginia coach Bob Huggins adapted a new signature “Press Virginia” style of play two seasons ago, his rotation has been about 10 deep. In theory, his teams have been less reliant on just one player. It’s not that Williams had such a superior skill set, but in conjunction with losing Jonathan Holton, the Mountaineers have to fill a big void in one of their biggest strengths. West Virginia led the nation last season in offensive rebounding percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy, and Williams and Holton were a large reason why. They combined for 42 percent of the team’s offensive boards with an average of 6.7 per game. The reason that’s so crucial? The Mountaineers still struggled to score when they weren't forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. In their 70-56 NCAA tournament loss to Stephen F. Austin, West Virginia shot 30 percent from the field and that was despite rebounding 47 percent of its misses.
The Mountaineers are in the mix to land a graduate transfer. Both Anthony Livingston, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 15.5 points and 9.4 rebounds for Arkansas State and Merrill Holden, a 6-foot-8 power forward who averaged 8.1 points and 5.0 rebounds for Louisiana Tech are considering West Virginia. If they can't sign either player, Huggins will look to get his frontcourt help from an unproven bunch. Rising junior forward Elijah Macon, who was primarily used at the five spot, may be the most likely to start at center. He appeared in every game last season and averaged 4.5 points and 3.0 rebounds. Rising senior Brandon Watkins, who has been a role player his entire career, returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee to play sparingly in 23 games.
Huggins got a small boost from Nathan Adrian by moving him into the starting lineup for the final 16 games last season. The rising senior forward improved from his season averages to 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds during that span and also shot 40 percent from 3-point range overall. But the Mountaineers will need more. Forward Esa Ahmad showed promise as a true freshman who started 34 games and could allow the Mountaineers to play smaller if he can prove to be a solid rebounder as he takes on more responsibility. Of their freshmen frontcourt players, Maciej Bender, a 6-foot-10 forward, appears to be ready for immediate playing time. He could add an offensive skill set the Mountaineers have lacked recently.
West Virginia’s group of guards will be expected to carry the team, especially early in the season. Guards Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles and Tarik Phillip helped West Virginia rank second nationally in defensive turnover percentage. The trio accounted for 46 percent of the team’s total steals. Miles is also credited with snapping Buddy Hield’s streak of 39 straight games in double figures scoring by holding him to just six points in the Mountaineers' 69-67 win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament. Phillip could join Carter and Miles in the starting lineup after coming off the bench last season and finishing second on the team in assists.
Backcourt depth will be the strength of the team with newcomers James “Beetle” Bolden and Chase Harler hoping to help ease West Virginia’s scoring troubles. Bolden tore his ACL in the preseason and missed the entire year. Harler is a true freshman from Wheeling, West Virginia, who averaged 25 points per game in high school.
Regardless of who’s in the backcourt, the Mountaineers have to take better care of the ball. West Virginia ranked 291st in offensive turnover percentage. In the loss to Stephen F. Austin, it committed 22 turnovers which ended with a classic Huggins postgame press conference: “I don’t know why anybody would waste energy pressing us, we’ll throw it to you regardless. That would be a waste of energy really. We’re very charitable. We’re one of the most charitable groups in college basketball.” That’s why even as Huggins tries to fill his frontcourt voids, guard play will likely decide just how high the Mountaineers can climb next season.