It was a day or two before last year’s July 4 holiday when I filed the WVU basketball preview to Athlon magazine.
I’ve been the man behind those basketball and football outlooks for years. And as I studied the roster and considered its coach, Bob Huggins, there was optimism. The Mountaineers had made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons. There had been three Sweet 16 appearances within the roll. In 2017-18, West Virginia finished second in the Big 12 regular season and runner-up in the league’s postseason tournament for the third year in a row. In case you’ve forgotten, the Mountaineers were once ranked No. 2 last year.
Yes, a step back was expected with the loss of Jevon Carter. But what I didn’t expect was a total eclipse of the sun from that July day until this past Saturday, when WVU stunned No. 7 Kansas 65-64.
Finally, we saw the light shine on the Mountaineer program. The court was rushed. There were smiles.
So let’s take a look at what went right, what’s been going wrong and what still needs to be corrected with Baylor on deck tonight (Jan. 21, if you’re reading after Monday).
Heading into the season, I thought Huggins finally had the numbers and depth to create the tempo he wishes.
Obviously, that hasn’t been the case. We’ve discussed some of the personnel issues before. Here, though, I’ll just point out that Jermaine Haley’s Saturday performance at point guard was exactly what the Mountaineers needed. He was 5-for-5 shooting (13 points). He had 5 rebounds. Next on the docket for the 6-7 junior is to start piling up assists.
Yet let’s dig deep into the TEAM stats.
Wonder at what the team has been doing well?
Yes, actually, there are a few things. WVU’s scoring margin (74.6-point average) is No. 4 within the Big 12. The Mountaineers’ free throw percentage (69.2 percent) is also fourth. Also, WVU is No. 2 in rebounding margin (+6.1) and No. 1 in offensive rebounds (14.4 per game).
If, however, you want a better tell of West Virginia’s rebounding, don’t look at the number of total rebounds or offensive/defensive rebounding margin. Look instead at defensive and offensive rebounding percentages. At least there, when it comes to offensive rebounding, clanking a bunch of shots, giving more rebounding opportunities, isn’t rewarded.
In offensive rebounding percentage (divide a team’s offensive rebounds by the sum of the offensive rebounds plus opponents’ defensive rebounds), West Virginia is No. 2 in the Big 12.
The bad news? In defensive rebound percentage (reverse the process), the Mountaineers are No. 9 of 10.
A big factor there, of course, is the loss of big man Sagaba Konate, who has only played in eight of the 18 games so far. He was the cornerstone of the team heading into the season. He averaged 7.6 rebounds a game. And he was the sensei of swat, providing 116 last season. (WVU is now No. 6 in the Big 12 in blocks.)
Against Kansas, West Virginia was outrebounded 34-28. Who cares, though, if you win, right? Well, if you see it that way, take some of Saturday’s gains with, well, a grain of salt.
One of the areas of concern for WVU this season has been 3-point field goal percentage defense (still No. 10 at 35.2 percent). KU was held to 31.2 percent. A gain.
And while it was status quo in other Mountaineer trouble spots like scoring margin (No. 9 at +1.3) and field goal percentage (No. 10 at 42.2 percent), there was one area of improvement that shined like a beacon through fog.
It had to do with turnovers – the statistic behind those last four NCAA appearances. The key to the old “Press Virginia” success.
Within the Big 12, West Virginia currently stands No. 9 in assists per game (13.2). Yet against Kansas, the Mountaineers doubled the Jayhawks 12-6.
In turnover margin, WVU is dead last in the league (-2.6). That’s stunning considering the last four years. But the Mountaineers won that battle too against Kansas at +5 (13-18).
And then there is the assist/turnover ratio. Still, West Virginia is last at .9 in the Big 12. Yet against Kansas, the Mountaineers fared OK with 12 assists and 13 turnovers. Sometimes you have to consider the opponent.
Assists. Steals. Turnovers. Extra shots. They have been the fuel for WVU’s success in recent years.
Keep improving there and maybe – just maybe — these Mountaineers can provide even more sunshine.