With the football team in the thick of the Big 12 Conference title race, the men’s and women’s soccer teams in the postseason, and the rifle team number-one in the nation and undefeated, it’s difficult to believe that it’s already time to welcome back basketball to the Coliseum for another year of Mountaineer men’s hoops.
It feels like just yesterday that the Mountaineers gave the Villanova Wildcats one of the best games they would face all NCAA Tournament long en route to the Wildcats’ second national title in three years.
Most notably, fans had to say goodbye to veterans Daxter Miles Jr. and Jevon Carter. And with their exits, a new era has arrived for Huggins and the Mountaineers.
Thankfully, the Mountaineers aren’t in the kind of rebuilding mode that they were in when Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant graduated in 2012. Instead, this team features a blend of battle hardened upperclassmen and a cast of exciting and talented newcomers. Being ranked in the top-15 in the nation to begin the year is where a follower of this team and college basketball would probably expect. The potential is there for this team to record its fifth-straight 25-plus win season and achieve another low seed for the NCAA Tournament. On the flip side, there’s also the potential for them to disappoint, like this past Saturday, since they don’t have Carter and Miles to lean on for outside scoring and in-your-grill defense.
Here are five things for you to watch for, as the men’s hoop squad begins the 2018-19 season.
Sagaba Konate’s outside game
Konate often plays like a man amongst boys on the hardwood, and this season should be no exception. As head coach Bob Huggins said during Big 12 Media Day, “he’s the best shot blocker in the country.” However, the reason he returned to Morgantown instead of entering the NBA Draft last spring was because he’s too short to play center in the professional ranks. At 6’8″, he has to show he has an outside game and prove he’s more than just a shot-blocking tyrant. He has yet to attempt a three-point shot in his career as a Mountaineer.
Carter came back to WVU his senior year in an effort to prove to NBA front office members that he could shoot from three. He responded by shooting 39-percent on the season and making desperately-needed, highly-contested shots the entire year in big moments. Konate was the most improved player for WVU last year, not only because of his improved rebounding and shot blocking ability, but because of his deadly up-and-under move in the post and mid-range jumper. Of course, fans would like to see Konate hit threes like Omari Spellman did for Nova in last year’s Sweet 16 match-up, but not if it leads to disrupting the team’s offensive rhythm and Konate becoming frustrated.
Don’t be surprised to see him pull up from behind the arc this season. If he’s effective, then the sky is the limit for him as a player. If not, Konate should continue to build upon his post game, because he’s becoming one of the best big men in college basketball.
Brandon Knapper’s Development
If Konate was the most improved player for WVU last season, then Beetle Bolden was second. He’s money in spurts, but it’s hard to imagine him playing a full load of minutes like Carter and/or Miles because of his size and history of injuries. Therefore, a reliable back-up point guard needs to emerge to share the load and all reports point to Knapper being the guy. Heck, Carter even praised Knapper last season as the next big thing. Carter’s endorsement is enough for me to think West Virginia may have something special in the South Charleston native.
How often will WVU “Go Big”
At some point this season, fans will witness four Mountaineers that are 6’8″ or taller on the court at the same time. Konate is Atlas. Derek Culver is the Achilles to Andrew Gordon’s Hector. Esa Ahmad is the Ares to Lamont West’s Hercules. Add in Emmitt Matthews Jr. (6’7″), Jermaine Haley (6’7″) and Wesley Harris (6’8″) and West Virginia is HUGE — much like the 2014 Kentucky team that boat raced WVU in the NCAA Tournament. And don’t forget about Logan Routt, who stands at 6’11”. Fans haven’t seen a Mountaineer team this long and athletic ever, which brings me to the next point…
Will this be the same Press Virginia?
Given West Virginia’s size, defensively, they are built for lock-down, man-to-man defense in the half court like it’s the old Big East. I’m not saying they can’t continue to press. In fact, the group may even be better because of the added length. But, it’s difficult to have to replace a school record holder in steals and another four-year starting guard and think there won’t be at least some regression. Huggins is a magician and will maximize his players’ abilities, but is this team better off pressing less? We’ll have to see.
Will Esa Ahmad ever max out?
Speaking of maximizing ability, it’s sink or swim time for Esa Ahmad. Fortunately, it sounds like he’s finally ready to step into the hole left by Carter as the team’s leader. The half-season-long suspension last year crushed any hopes for him to finally blossom after showing flashes of brilliance during his freshman and sophomore seasons. At certain times last year, Ahmad looked like the potential All-Big 12 player that he could eventually be.
I’ve always contended all Ahmad needs to do is be more aggressive, take it to the rack and be physical on both ends of the court. He has physical gifts that fans haven’t seen in a player since Joe Alexander was a Mountaineer, but Ahmad’s dominance has yet to be unleashed. It took a guy like Da’Sean Butler to take WVU to the promised land of the Final Four in 2011. It’s going to take the best version of Esa Ahmad to get the Mountaineers back there in 2019.