West Virginia University made the most prudent move it could in regard to the 2018-19 men’s basketball season.
It pulled the plug.
Make no mistake, even though seven games remain in the regular season, this campaign effectively is over. No program jettisons two starters, including its lone senior, if it believes anything can be salvaged.
Yet on Monday, WVU announced that Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris were out, booted from the team for the always popular and always nebulous “violation of athletic department policies.” That could mean just about anything, but, considering the severity of the punishment, it was more than tripping a guy from the bench.
That was a serious message sent to the rest of the roster, but a necessary one. This Mountaineer season had become one big, sad bust. WVU isn’t just losing games these days, it’s getting embarrassed. Last Saturday’s 22-point loss to Texas was the fourth straight of at least 17 points. The last time West Virginia lost by single digits was an eight-point loss to Oklahoma State a month ago and, since then, there have been two 20-point losses and two 30-point losses.
Do injuries have something to do with it? Sure. Sagaba Konate hasn’t played since Dec. 8 and his absence as a rim protector has been crushing. Beetle Bolden entered this season as the most accurate 3-point shooter in program history. He has suffered through numerous maladies to his arms and hands. And he hasn’t played since the loss to Tennessee.
Now, in previous seasons, there would be someone on the roster with the leadership and gumption to rally the team despite those absences. Someone would snatch teammates by their collars and demand that focus remained strong.
The guys who should have been doing that this year? The two guys WVU just kicked off the roster.
Ahmad’s dismissal brings to an early and abrupt end one of the most disappointing Mountaineer careers in recent memory. According to 247Sports’ rating system, Ahmad was the sixth-best rated prospect for WVU since the recruiting service started rating players.
Just looking at his stats, he doesn’t present as a disappointment. He’s a 1,000-point scorer with nearly 500 rebounds. Those are respectable numbers for a Big 12 starter. But Ahmad’s issues go past the numbers.
Well, there’s one other number that comes into play — 16. That’s how many games he was suspended at the beginning of last season for failing to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Real leaders don’t put themselves in such situations. And, if they do, they come back ready to make amends.
This year, he’s averaging nearly three turnovers a game, a career worst. He never shot more 3-pointers per game than this season, yet was making just 24 percent from beyond the arc. And after losses, he talked about mental lapses and hangovers from upset wins. He’s the senior. His job is to keep that from happening.
Maybe this stat is the most telling. In the last two seasons, WVU was 15-2 when Ahmad didn’t play. It was 22-23 when he did.
In the end, West Virginia’s one senior won’t be allowed to walk across the court for Senior Day. That a four-year starter couldn’t hang on until then — and that WVU wouldn’t let him — is a significant statement.
After the Texas loss, someone asked Bob Huggins which players on the roster are listened to the most. Huggins said Harris topped the list.
Harris was arrested in the offseason on misdemeanor battery charges, accused of punching another motorist, breaking his nose, and throwing him against his car during a traffic incident. He still awaits a court hearing for that. And while any semblance of arena security in Lubbock could have prevented it, Harris was reprimanded by the Big 12 last season for striking a Texas Tech fan during a post-game court storming.
And that’s the guy who most has the players’ ears?
It’s not just arrests and multi-game suspensions. It’s Trey Doomes getting whistled for a technical foul against Jacksonville State while he still wore a redshirt. It’s Logan Routt getting tossed from a Texas Tech game he never entered for tripping a Red Raiders player while sitting on the bench. This is a WVU season littered with poor decisions, poor play and poor attitudes.
Among his post-Texas comments, Huggins opened up about some of the problems on the current roster.
“You have guys that follow the game plan and guys who don’t follow the game plan,” he said. “You have guys who really compete and guys who don’t compete. You have guys who make excuses and guys who try harder.”
He didn’t name names, but if Ahmad and Harris followed the game plan, on and off the court, competed and tried harder, they’d both still be on the roster.
The most damning comments have not come from anyone currently on WVU’s roster or staff. They’ve come from a former player, Nate Adrian. During a Feb. 7 podcast with WVU play-by-play voice Tony Caridi and MetroNews host Brad Howe, Adrian launched a verbal haymaker at the team, saying that, if all the players scheduled to return to WVU did, there was “no chance” the Mountaineers would be competitive in the Big 12 next season.
“Esa’s a huge part of the problem, but he’s not the only problem with this team,” Adrian said. “I think the problem lies with all of your upperclassmen. All of this is on them. … They are a problem and I don’t think you’re getting better until the majority, if not all of them, are gone.”
A scorching condemnation from a player who rose to All-Big 12 third team as a senior, despite never averaging double figures in scoring in his career, through high energy, toughness and a willingness to do whatever was necessary to win. Who knows if Huggins was listening, but an excoriation like that is hard to ignore.
WVU couldn’t ignore the issues anymore, which is why two starters no longer wear Mountaineer uniforms. So if the towel has been thrown in on this season, there’s no reason not to begin the evaluation process for next season.
West Virginia’s men’s basketball program needs a top-to-bottom examination. Huggins, with four Sweet 16 appearances and a Final Four since returning to Morgantown, has more than earned the opportunity to right the ship. But it’s going to take more than rearranging deck chairs.
WVU must look at the type of players it’s signing to the team, not just in terms of talent, but also in terms of personality and attitude. If Jevon Carter is the measuring stick for what a West Virginia basketball player should be, use him as such.
It must look at all parts of team administration. Is it time for some new voices in different areas of the program? It must look at how the players are being coached. Are problem children the main culprit for WVU’s struggles, or is it that those problem children are being allowed to remain problems?
There is a strong young nucleus for WVU basketball. Derek Culver struggled early with his attitude and still is finding his way on the court, but he’s the best player on the roster right now. Andrew Gordon has shown promise. Jordan McCabe has hit rough patches, but he seems like a guy determined to become a better ballplayer. And next season, the Mountaineers will welcome the highest-rated recruit in program history, five-star forward Oscar Tshibwe.
By starting the process now, West Virginia can hit the ground running when next season begins. The Big 12 is one of the best conferences in college basketball, so there’s no time to waste. The future of the program is what is most important to WVU right now.
There’s no sense in dwelling in the present.