The Mountaineers (1-0) hit a sizzling 56 percent from the field – including 66.7 percent in the first half – and managed 16 assists on 28 field goals. Even better, there was ball and body movement, solid shot selection and a fine mix of attacking the lane and taking the open look. There was balanced scoring with four players in double figures, including Juwan Staten's career-high 22 points and Eron Harris' 19. The freshmen contributed, with Nathan Adrian netting 11 largely via his 3-for-3 performance from behind the arc. Brandon Watkins scored 10 points and showed hustle and an ability to be at least an adequate finisher. And Devin Williams – the prospect with the most promise – was able to clog the lane, change shot trajectory and operate a bit on the blocks.
The Mountaineers, as a team, showed continual off-ball effort and very little stagnation until the latter stages of the game, when they become a bit complacent on a pair of possessions that featured flat-footedness and lack of effort. Outside of that stretch, this team already appears far more cohesive than WVU did in the early stages last season. It's not a polished cohesion, but the exertion was there. West Virginia showed it recognition of base sets and defenses and how to attack such. They broke the much-expected Mt. St. Mary's press and seemed genuinely interested in sharing the ball.
WVU freed Harris for open threes. Staten seemed to better find the range on the 10 to 15 footer and Watkins and Williams attacked the hoop, while Adrian stayed hot from the perimeter. The passing was, if not exceptional, at least showing effort and the intelligence of utilizing the bounce to deliver the ball on the block and off drives. On one late possession, WVU broke the press with an inbounds from Harris to Staten, who found Remi Dibo up the floor breaking toward the bucket. Dibo hit Williams with a nice bounce pass, and Williams skipped it across the arc to Adrian, who pump faked to draw the defender in the air before slicing to the hoop and using his body to protect and the glass to hit the driving lay-in. It was as fundamentally sound a play as West Virginia has pieced together in awhile, and it shows some promise for this group as long as it continues to grow and develop together.
That was an issue last season, when certain players were tagged with what amounted to the locker room cancer title, and those players are now gone. Head coach Bob Huggins says Staten has bought in. Harris and Terry Henderson – held out with a non-serious shin issue that might allow him to play Tuesday at Virginia Tech. – are considered excellent team players and above average shooters. Mix in Williams' length and Adrian's shooting, with the typically steady play of Kevin Noreen and there are blocks with which to build. Rome it isn't. But it does, finally feel like WVU is moving in more of a positive direction.
Defensively, there was much left to be desired. Mt. St. Mary's got far too many open looks from the perimeter, and really should have made more than just seven of 21. The Mount (0-1) had assists on 12 of 22 baskets, and did get West Virginia to slide out of position and open interior looks at times. And once the Mountaineers opened their 10-point lead, there didn't seem to be much of an instinct or ability to finish off the foe. Indeed, WVU, ahead 41-32 at the break, ebbed and flowed between leads of nine and 16, the latter the biggest of the game, in the second half. Not until the 1:40 mark, when West Virginia's advantage ballooned to 75-59 on Staten's free throws, did the game feel truly secured.
The biggest issue was West Virginia's lack of rebounding. Mt. St. Mary's totaled 30 rebounds, 12 offensive, and actually beat WVU on the glass by two boards. The Mount scored 30 points in the paint to West Virginia's 26, and the second-chance points were nearly even at nine for WVU and seven for Mt. St. Mary's. That's partially because The Mount missed more shots than did West Virginia, and because Adrian, like Kevin Pittsnogle, spends much of his time outside the arc. But with the size and skillset advantages, The Mont shouldn't have been close in rebounding.
There's also little question depth is an issue. With the likely inability of Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton to play because of academics, West Virginia is painfully thin. Another injury or two, and the team likely won't be able to compete for the stretches needed to finish mid-pack in the Big 12. But, at least for game one, West Virginia appears to have the tools needed to at least be competitive and begin to rebuild with a team that can handle fundamentals and effort. We'll take that – for now.