Many might remember West Virginia’s face-plant vs. Stephen F. Austin in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. But what could be forgotten is the fact that the Mountaineers finished second both in the brutal Big 12 regular season and league tournament to Kansas. Their “Press Virginia” defensive style remains a strong national brand. And now WVU returns four players who started at least 16 games.
Double-double machine Devin Williams has departed. Ditto Jon Holton, he of the lethal press wing span. So can WVU keep up the pressure in 2016-17?
“We’ve sold too many T-shirts not to,” cracks coach Mountaineer Bob Huggins.
Good line. Also, West Virginia has a nice group of guards with juniors Jevon Carter and Dax Miles, as well as senior Tarik Phillip.
“Our guards are obviously our strength,” Huggins says. “They’re going to have to play well. They’re going to have to play well on a consistent basis.”
WVU did lose leading scorer and sixth man Jaysean Paige to graduation. Inside, however, is where the serious losses occurred. Williams and Holton had 567 rebounds between them. “We’re going to have to have some guys step up, but that’s every year,” Huggins says. “Generally speaking, guys have done that here.”
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bob Huggins
2015-16 RECORD (BIG 12): 26–9 (13–5)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Stephen F. Austin 70–56 in the First Round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Fifth in the Big 12
F Jonathan Holton (8.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
G Jaysean Paige (13.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
F Devin Williams (13.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg)
As Huggins will quickly point out, WVU lost two of the school’s all-time rebounders in Williams and Holton. The burden will now fall to a quartet to take over: Elijah Macon, Nate Adrian, Esa Ahmad and Brandon Watkins.
Macon (6'9", 240) will have to mimic the physical presence of Williams. Now a junior, Macon was a highly regarded recruit who has flashed both a shooting touch and a penchant for making mistakes.
“He’s getting better,” Huggins says. “I’m really happy with Elijah. His attitude has been great. He just has to rebound the ball, but he’s very capable. Big, strong, mobile, bouncier than a lot of people think.”
Excessive fouling has been a part of WVU’s press, but now Macon and Adrian specifically will have to be more careful.
“Nate shot the ball well, particularly at the end of last year,” Huggins says. “Him being able to stretch the defense and make shots is going to be critical for us. He has to rebound more and better and stay out of foul trouble.”
Ahmad is the wild card. The former two-time Ohio Player of the Year started 34 games last season but averaged only 4.9 points and 2.7 rebounds. Watkins, meanwhile, spent time in Huggins’ doghouse coming off injury.
Redshirt freshman Lamont West and true freshman Sagaba Konate could also see playing time.
Huggins isn’t shy when he speaks of his backcourt of Carter, Miles and Phillip. “Those three guys have the potential to be as good [a trio] as any in the country,” he says. “Dax is on the verge of being a three-year starter. Tarik has two years under his belt — and had a heck of a year last year. J.C. got better as the season went along. He hadn’t played point guard and we asked him to — and I think it affected other parts of his game. I think he’s very comfortable there now. All three are terrific defenders. They make the pressure go.”
Carter led the team with an impressive 59 steals, while Phillip had 53 and Miles had 46. The question, though, is will the three make shots? The team was 269th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage.
Also, expect significant minutes for senior Teyvon Myers and redshirt freshman point guard James “Beetle” Bolden. Huggins likes to play five guards.
WVU has three true freshmen, and Bob Huggins will undoubtedly give two — Maciej “Magic” Bender and Sagaba Konate — playing time this season. Bender, a 6'10" member of the Polish U-18 National Team, is the most intriguing. His former prep school coach compared him to ex-Wisconsin star Frank Kaminski. Konate, meanwhile, is “as big and strong and physical of a freshman as there is out there,” according to Huggins. Chase Harler could add shooting.
West Virginia returns six significant players from a team that won 26 games. Still, the Mountaineers will be hard-pressed to replicate the effort. The loss of Williams and Holton will leave WVU exposed inside sans a proven big man. WVU, though, does have a fine backcourt that should keep “Press Virginia” alive and effective. If Carter and Miles begin hitting from beyond the 3-point arc, it will be a bonus.
Just keep watch on forwards Ahmad and Macon. Both were highly regarded four-star recruits. If they can live up to some of the pre-college hype, rebound and stay in games, West Virginia should again be an NCAA Tournament team.