Big 12 Burning Questions: West Virginia Mountaineers

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 9th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s Big 12 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Could Esa Ahmad’s lengthy suspension be a blessing in disguise?

One of the benefits of “Press Virginia” is that it’s difficult for the loss of any single player to cause the team to implode. There’s nothing that epitomizes “next man up” quite like having 10 players available who averaged at least 10 minutes per game as the Mountaineers had in 2017, so even if Bob Huggins‘ team drops a few non-conference games in the first half of this season while junior Esa Ahmad is sidelined with an eligibility suspension, the Mountaineers should be alright. But let’s take it one step further. While West Virginia would obviously prefer to have its second-leading scorer available to face the likes of Texas A&M and Virginia, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the Mountaineers ultimately benefit from his absence, as it gives the team a chance to develop a frontcourt that also lost stalwarts Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins.

West Virginia will search for depth while big man Esa Ahmad starts the season on the bench. (Kelsie LeRose/BGS)

Sophomore Sagaba Konate is a strong bet to start in Ahmad’s absence. The Mali native had a raw freshman season, but gained Huggins’ trust as the season played out, averaging 12.2 minutes per game in Big 12 play. The temperamental head coach even praised Konate’s improvement at Big 12 Media Day last month, noting that the big man has started to flash some range. Expect to also see more time from sophomores Maciej Bender and Logan Routt, though they are bigger mysteries. The pair combined to play just 179 minutes last season, with most of those minutes going to Bender. Aside from Konate, the Mountaineers’ most experienced big man wasn’t even on the roster a year ago. Assistant coach Ronnie Everhart is high on 6’8″ JuCo transfer Wesley Harris, a lefty who offers enough size and agility to play the four in West Virginia’s breakneck system. Harris has reportedly played well in practice and should be ready to become a key contributor both during and after Ahmad’s suspension. Lamont West will play on the wing and be counted on to stem the tide in the meantime.

Of course, there’s a sizable chance that one of the country’s toughest guards will try to put the entire burden of Ahmad’s absence on his shoulders and power the team through mid-December. Senior Jevon Carter led the nation in steals last season, but something that tends to get lost in discussion of “Press Virginia” is that Carter drastically improved from beyond the arc last season, shooting 38.8 percent from deep after a woeful 30.6 percent performance the year before. Oh, and he did so while leading the team in assists and pitching in on the glass. If Carter wants to get an early leg up on Devonte’ Graham in the Big 12 Player of the Year race, continuing that type of production on both ends when his team is against the wall would be a heck of a start. Starting alongside Carter will be Daxter Miles, a fantastic off-the-ball defender who knows exactly when to gamble and when to stay at home. With Tarik Phillip and Teyvon Meyers now gone, James Bolden, Brandon Knapper, JuCo transfer D’Angelo Hunter and sophomore Chase Harler will fill the gaps between the two seasoned veterans.

West Virginia’s frontcourt depth will be tested early in the season. Texas A&M and Virginia are formidable opponents, and the Mountaineers will also be part of a competitive Advocare Invitational bracket in Orlando that includes tournament-caliber teams like Missouri, UCF and St. John’s, each of whom will be on the hunt for marquee wins. Huggins’ team will be shorthanded for the first half of this year’s campaign, but if those circumstances allow the Mountaineers to find some supporting contributors without taking on too much water, they just might be better off facing the Big 12 wars when Ahmad returns in January.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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