It’s hard to imagine, really, that West Virginia would be competitive, much less be able to win, without Staten and Browne in the lineup. The only seniors on the Mountaineer roster, the duo had the challenging task of not only their own assignments, but also learning a new defense, helping mold all of the newcomers into a cohesive unit, and directing the offense during games. When Staten was injured in the Texas contest and Browne followed to the sidelines early in the Baylor game, a late season collapse seemed to be looming. A three-game losing streak to end the season appeared as a realistic possibility.
Into the breach, however, stepped the four newcomers who didn’t have much of an idea of each other when they arrived on campus. Comprised of a pair of jucos and another of freshmen, there was a natural barrier in terms of age and experience. Combined with the absence of any mid-class returnees between them and the senior pair of Browne and Staten, developing a bond of teamwork and trust was paramount. Countering that, though, were the gaps of age and experience, as well as the personal agendas each newcomer might bring.
It wasn’t as if these potential problems were anything new for WVU. Imports and freshmen of recent teams never jelled, leading to some internal issues that clearly impacted the overall performance. Rather than continuing WVU’s NCAA streak, those squads headed down the NIT path – or no post-season at all. So, when Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Tarik Phillip, and Jaysean Paige arrived and began practicing and playing against each other, getting them all together – the “buy-in” that head coach Bob Huggins routinely discusses – was paramount. At first, though, that wasn’t in evidence.
“There were a lot of battles out there on the floor in open gym,” Miles said after WVU downed Oklahoma State to record its 23rd win of the season. “We’re all competitors, and we knew we were working for playing time. There were times when there would be scuffles on the court, because we were all battling. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
In the sometimes mysterious way in which conflict resolves into strong bonds, West Virginia’s guards found a way to meld that competitive edge with the greater goal – making sure everyone knew their role and was ready to play when called upon. Chief in that effort, in addition to the coaching staff, were Staten and Browne, who had seen past teams go down the wrong path. They coached, cajoled and prodded, and also taught, not worrying that the progress of the newcomers might cut into their playing time. That process, combined with the experienced gained over time, allowed the quintet to find their roles and figure out what they could do in the framework of the team. Of course, the process wasn’t without bumps. There were big ones – major ones. Players made glaring mistakes, and were yanked unceremoniously. They sometimes didn’t play at all, either due to game match-ups or problems with their approach. There were nights when there were more zeroes in their line scores than at a singles bar. But through that all, the overall focus didn’t waver.
"We might have been going after it on the court, but two minutes after we get off, we're family. We all support each other," Miles said.
“We all know we have to be patient and be ready to play when our time comes,” added Phillip, whose minutes have been yo-yo like at times this season. "We have to be prepared to do what needs to be done, and fill in where we’re needed.”
Signs of the progression came on the road trip to Kansas, where the undermanned Mountaineers came within a whisker of becoming the first team to sweep the regular season series under head coach Bill Self. Still, there were gaffes down the stretch, which allowed the Jayhawks to slip away with the game in overtime. That led to concerns for the finale, as Oklahoma State needed another win to solidify its NCAA status. However, all four players responded beautifully, and one of the best things to see was that none tried to do more than his role demanded. Carter ran the team well, and despite making just one of six shots was again a defensive presence, helping hold Phil Forte to 12 points. Phillip ran the team sell when Carter got two quick early fouls, recording three assists and scoring eight points. Paige contributed nine with a pair of steals. Add in walk-on Chase Connor who has fit in well and filled a bit of that class gap, and the Mountaineers had enough pieces to overcome the loss of their senior stalwarts.
Obviously, West Virginia is a better team with Staten and Browne than without. And there are still a lot of items that need improvement, including silly fouls, the occasional lazy pass and some mental mistakes defensively. However, the key elements – trusting in teammates, not complaining about playing time and role, putting team first – are securely in place. And with them, came a big win on Senior Night – perhaps the best way this group could honor the two that helped them get to where they are now.