Opportunity awaits for West Virginia's Juwan Staten

It might have taken four years, but for Juwan Staten the wait has been worth it.

On Thursday night, about 200 miles from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, he will lead the West Virginia Mountaineers into the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2010.

There, they will do battle with the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats for the right to head to the Elite Eight. Just one year ago, this scenario didn’t seem realistic.

After averaging 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in the 2013-14 season, Staten was named to the Big 12 First Team and the Big 12 All-Defensive Team. Despite his individual success, the Mountaineers ended the regular season at just 17-15 and were ousted in the first round of the NIT after losing to the Georgetown Hoyas, 77-65.

Still, with the positive attention his individual play attracted, Staten contemplated declaring for the NBA draft. After a few conversations with head coach Bob Huggins, however, Staten opted to return for his senior year, with the goal of helping the program reach new heights. And since his impressive performance in November’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off, it has been apparent that, if healthy, the Mountaineers would be one of the last teams standing this postseason. In leading the Mountaineers to what was an early-season upset over the defending champion UConn Huskies, Staten was arguably at his best, scoring 21 points, consistently creating space off the dribble and getting the shots that he wanted.

Many believed that the win over a ranked opponent was a foretelling of what was to come in March. Now, here we are.

After finishing the season 24-8, the Mountaineers began tournament play Friday as the fifth seed in the Midwest Region and have since defeated No. 12 Buffalo - and No. 4 Maryland. Despite a few underwhelming performances in regular-season losses to Texas and Baylor, Staten finished the season as the leading scorer for the Mountaineers for the second consecutive year, this time with 14.1 points per game. Slowly but surely, Staten has shown the productivity that has established him as one of the most talked-about point guards in the Big 12.

In Friday’s matchup against the Bulls, in his first taste of NCAA tournament action, his 15 points helped the Mountaineers secure a 68-62 victory, their first tournament win since 2011. Just 48 hours later, the point guard overcame a poor shooting night in which he scored just six points, converting two of his eight shot attempts. Despite his struggles from the field, he played a team-high 34 minutes and dished out a game-high six assists in the Mountaineers’ 69-59 victory over the Terrapins.

About one year ago, when coach Huggins consulted with the young guard as to whether he would declare for the NBA draft, Huggins impressed upon Staten that the opportunity to play college basketball and excel in the tournament is one that few players have and even fewer seize.

Back in 2010, behind Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks, the Mountaineers captured the first Big East Tournament championship in school history and made an improbable run to the Final Four after winning the East Region. To this day, according to Huggins, the members of that team look back at the history they made together and know that, on some level, their team has been immortalized. That message was not lost on Staten, who this week will attempt a similar, if not better, outcome in front of dozens of friends and family who will make the trip from Dayton to support him and his West Virginia teammates.

With the rediscovery of his early-season productivity and a slight home-court advantage, and with Huggins on the sideline, Staten has the opportunity to lead the Mountaineers further than anyone likely thought possible.

Everyone, that is, except Staten.