MORGANTOWN — The first thing one has to understand when looking at WVU’s 2017-18 basketball team is this: The Mountaineers are used to winning. Right now, there is a strong winning culture in place.
West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons tried to make sure that stays in place this past Monday by announcing an extension of coach Bob Huggins’ contract.
Yet despite the winning ways — WVU has been to the Sweet 16 in two of the last three years and fell a 3-pointer short of sending Gonzaga into OT there last season — questions remain surrounding this Mountaineer team. There was the scrimmage loss to Purdue last Sunday. And key losses include instinctive Nate Adrian and rugged Tarik Phillip.
So this week I huddled with WVU assistant coach Ronnie Everhart to zero in on five of those questions heading into the Mountaineers’ opener in Germany on Friday.
Here’s the result:
Question 1: “First and foremost, will our seniors have good senior years?” asked Everhart. “They have to.”
By “seniors” he means All-America candidate Jevon Carter and backcourt mate Daxter Miles Jr.
Of course, those that have watched Mountaineer basketball over the last couple of years have zero concerns about Carter, assuming he stays healthy. He’s been the team’s Iron Man, leading the Mountaineers in scoring (13.5) with 92 steals and 137 assists last season. He also led the Mountaineers in defensive rebounding, free throw shooting and minutes played.
So who Everhart is really asking about is Miles, who averaged 8.8 points last season with 46 steals. He needs to become more of a factor.
“He’s starting to use that athleticism to his advantage,” Huggins has said.
WVU will need that. And more.
“Our guard development is going to be huge,” Everhart said, “because with Brandon [Knapper] getting hurt, it hurt our depth there.”
Newcomer D’Angelo Hunter, a 6-foot-6, 180-pound junior, will have to help in the backcourt. James “Beetle” Bolden will have to do more than shoot the trey. And Chase Harler will have to get his nose bloody.
Question 2: “Will we have development along the front line?”
Not around are the likes of Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins. The spotlight is now on 6-8 starter Sagaba Konate, 6-10 Maciej Bender, 6-11 Logan Routt and 6-8 newcomer and starter Wesley Harris.
“Sagaba’s development, Magic, Logan,” Everhart said. “I think Wesley Harris is a huge key. He’s really playing well early, especially for a guy that just got here. He’s picking up the concepts as well as anybody we’ve had since I’ve been here for five years. He’s doing well. That’s going to be huge.”
Question 3: “Will the returning guys take another step forward?”
Everhart spoke of Bolden and Lamont West in particular. The latter is a starter.
“They were good role guys, but role guys nonetheless last year,” said the assistant coach. “They are going to have to take on more this season.”
West averaged 5.6 points in an average of 11.9 minutes played last season. He hit 34.3 percent of his 3-point attempts.
“I kind of have the same role, just expanded a little bit,” West said of this season. “I have to play more minutes so I have to produce more; I have to rebound more; I have to play harder. I played hard last year, but if I’m going to start I have to play even harder.”
Question 4: “How well will the team mix together?”
This is a question many are ignoring. Second-leading scorer Esa Ahmad is suspended for the first half of the season. What effect will he have on the team before and after his return? Will Hunter, at 6-6, fare well in the backcourt? Where will freshman Teddy Allen fit in?
“Right now we have a lot of new pieces, so it’s sporadic — at best,” Everhart said. “As we move on, Bob Huggins is phenomenal --and always has been — at getting guys to understand the game and play together.
“So, as the year progresses, our willingness as a team to buy into what Hugs is talking about every day is going to be huge. The earlier we do the better.”
Huggins has even balked when asked about a rotation.
“They all give us different things,” said the head coach. “I don’t think we’ll have a set rotation all year because it depends on what the situation calls for.”
Question 5: How will WVU hold up against a brutal schedule?
Everhart didn’t mention this, but the schedule will certainly come into play with such a young roster.
Texas A&M, WVU’s Friday opponent, is No. 25 in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll. The Mountaineers, ranked 11th in that preseason poll, will host No. 5 Kentucky in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. They will host highly regarded Virginia. They will travel to Pitt.
Also, in the AdvoCare Invitational, WVU will play Missouri, St. John’s, Long Beach State or Oregon State on the Sunday after Thanksgiving near Orlando, Florida. That’s after meeting Nebraska or Central Florida with 7-6 Tacko Fall.
And, of course, it’s all before embarking on a Big 12 schedule that includes No. 4 Kansas and No. 24 Baylor as well as Texas, Oklahoma, TCU, etc.
“It’s too hard,” Huggins once quipped. “That’s why [former assistant] Billy [Hahn, who worked on the schedules] retired. Billy would never take the blame.”
If, however, this young group, led by a strong All-America candidate in Carter, can maneuver through the gauntlet, expect another NCAA tournament run for WVU.