West Virginia Basketball has been on a role since their opening night loss, winners of nine games in a row. This includes impressive performances against number 16 Virginia, who owns one of the best defenses in all of college basketball, along with renewing the Backyard Brawl rivalry with Pittsburgh. Many wrote West Virginia off after their ugly loss to Texas A&M in Germany, but head coach Bob Huggins‘ young team has responded to the challenge. They check in as now the number 11 ranked team in the country. There is not as much depth or athleticism as we are used to seeing from the past couple of West Virginia teams over the years, but there is so much talent at every position on each end of the floor that the potential is off the charts for this squad. So, how realistic is it to think the Mountaineers can run the table and win their first Big 12 championship?
The Mountaineers have been led by the leadership of their star senior guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., who have helped a young unit behind them improve each game. Carter is probably the Big 12 conference’s best player and among the top players in the country leading his squad behind his 19.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, six assists, and 3.8 steals per game. He has also improved his shooting statistics, where he is about 45 percent from the field and an astounding 43 percent from three. He is one of the most complete players West Virginia has ever had walk through its doors, drawing NBA comparisons to do-it-all point guards like Russell Westbrook. Miles is a great compliment to Carter, working off of him to average 14.6 points a game while shooting 46 percent from the field himself. Miles defense has been a huge improvement to his game, second on the team with 1.5 steals per game, including huge defensive stops in the final minutes of both the Missouri and Virginia games to preserve wins. Miles three-point percentage is way down from his career numbers, but he is being relied on now to do more than just jack up threes all night. His stroke from beyond the arc will come back to him by Big 12 play hopefully.
Sophomores Lamont West and James Bolden have really found their strokes from beyond three as of late. West had a huge game against Virginia, with his 22 points and hitting four crucial three-pointers which could have been the difference maker in winning or losing that game. He’s averaging about 12 points a game, he’s about unstoppable when he gets into a groove behind the arc, and his length is incomparable guarding the base line to steal in-bounds passes on the defensive side of the floor. West’s defense must improve to get the Press Virginia pressure defense playing at its best. Bolden is the Mountaineers sixth man with instant offense, energy, and grit off the bench. Bolden plays hard, giving full effort on each and every play, getting the “50-50” loose balls, and drilling long threes if you don’t put a hand in his face. Bolden is the Mountaineers best perimeter shooter, averaging about 11 points a game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 48 percent from three. Bolden spent this past off-season bulking up to build his toughness up against his height disadvantage.
Sophomore forward Sagaba Konate has improved his play as well, getting eight points, six rebounds and over three blocks a game. Konate has been a force in the middle, blocking most shots against him and grabbing rebounds at crucial times. He has to remember he cannot block every shot, as that way of play has gotten him in some foul trouble so far this year. Sophomore Wesley Harris has been clutch since coming to Morgantown, hitting some key shots and making big plays on the defensive end too. The Mountaineers need more production from more guys off the bench though. Freshman forward Teddy Allen, sophomore guard Chase Harler, and sophomore forward Maciej Bender‘s production has stalled the past few games. Getting these players’ shots going will only help their confidence and energy, taking pressure off of the defense and off of Carter and Miles to do everything offensively by themselves. Shots going down for these guys will only help West Virginia, building confidence and setting up more pressure after made field goals.
The famous Press Virginia pressure defense is not the same this season as it has been in the past, but they are playing well enough to get the job done right now. Carter, Miles, and Bolden have been great on that end of the floor, all contributing to one of the nation’s top defensive units in forcing turnovers and turnover margin. The team averages 20 turnovers forced a game, which is among the best in the nation, along with the second-best turnover margin at 9.5 in the country. The pressure hasn’t been used as much as it has been in past seasons due to lack of athleticism at some positions, as West Virginia is not getting the easy baskets they need to set it up before their opponents can inbound the ball. However, West Virginia may have the best half-court defense Huggins has ever coached, which has made up for them not using the pressure as much with different personnel this season. It showed during the Virginia and Pittsburgh games, as both those teams struggled to score 60 points or get very many open looks.
The combination of veteran leadership on the offensive end along with the combination of their full-court pressure sagging back into superb half-court when needed, the Mountaineers have everything it takes to bring home the Big 12 title during the 2017-2018 season. This season could be the year for the Mountaineers, as Kansas looks to be having a down year along with Iowa State and Texas. Oklahoma State is involved with NCAA violations possibly looming around their program, Oklahoma has the Big 12’s youngest star player on a young team, and Kansas State still isn’t where they need to be to be a real contender. Kansas will still be in the thick of contending along with TCU, Texas Tech, and Baylor as all of those teams should be NCAA tournament qualifiers. However, it looks like West Virginia may have jumped Kansas to be the favorite in the Big 12. This is a scary sight for all other Big 12 teams seeing the Mountaineers play at such a high level even without Esa Ahmad until at least mid-January. If the Mountaineers can keep up the high level of play and then get Ahmad back, West Virginia should definitely ascend to the favorite or at least co-favorites with Kansas for the Big 12 title.