And now that WVU is back in the Big Dance we can take a look at some of those questions and how it was able to answer them and use those key factors to have success in 2014-15. Of course, from game to game West Virginia wasn’t always the prettiest team to watch and there are certain flaws that you can find in logic when you simply just go off what you saw by using the eye test, so we’re going to go with a slightly different approach and take a look at these things analytically with a focus on the numbers and statistics behind the Mountaineers’ successes (and struggles) this season.
Who will help Juwan Staten with the scoring for WVU with Eron Harris and Terry Henderson gone?
Things looked a little iffy for this West Virginia season when rising juniors Eron Harris and Terry Henderson caught (some) people by surprise by announcing that they would be leaving the program to transfer and play elsewhere. An offseason that started out with optimism surrounding a team full of potential with young players quickly turned to doubts as the Mountaineers had nobody - especially in the backcourt - to pair with senior point guard Juwan Staten to become a legitimate consistent scoring option with H-Squared out of the picture.
In the place of the three people who left (forward Remi Dibo also bolted to turn pro in Europe), West Virginia went the JUCO route and brought in Tarik Phillip, Jaysean Paige and BillyDee Williams to join Daxter Miles and Jevon Carter in the Mountaineers’ recruiting class this season.
So, let’s take a look at how that scoring was balanced over the course of the year:
As you can see, it was pretty clear that Staten was your main option on offense (as he should have been) with big man Devin Williams presenting himself as the go-to option in the frontcourt that the Mountaineers needed him to be in order to be successful this season. What’s really interesting though is looking at the rest of the backcourt production - and especially looking at how evenly distributed the scoring was and how many different players stepped up to either lead the team in scoring or be second on the team each game. Even Chase Connor got in the mix there and we saw, much like Huggins implied would be the case before the year began, that the scoring and the help for Juwan would basically be a “by committee” type of deal where WVU just went with whichever player had the hot hand and let them go to work.
Of course the very interesting stretch to take a look at came in those final four games of the season when Staten and fellow senior guard Gary Browne were out with injuries. It’s not going to be something that West Virginia will have to worry about in the NCAA tournament since all signs point to both guards returning Friday against Buffalo, but that was the time where you were going to have to see some of these guys step up and prove that they can help carry the load (against some very good teams) with its two best players on the sidelines. Miles and Carter were the ones mainly thrust into that spotlight, and overall they both responded pretty well - but Miles was the one who made perhaps the biggest jump when his minutes were amplified and more emphasis was put on him making plays for the Mountaineers.
You knew that with those two sidelined, Miles’ numbers in terms of minutes, points and overall production in general would go up. But the thing that was the most impressive during his maturation late in the season was the way his efficiency and shooting percentages went through the roof. You saw him evolve into a focal point of what WVU did offensively, and he did it by letting the game come to him and playing within the system of what Bob Huggins wanted him to do. Miles and Carter were two pleasant surprises to a backcourt that needed people to improve along with Staten and Browne this season and it will be a lot of fun to see them continue to grow with more experience.
Will Staten become a better shooter?
There weren’t many things that Juwan Staten could have done better than he did a year ago when he emerged as one of the nation’s best point guards. He scored 18 points per game and was among the nation’s only point guards to average at least 15 points with more than five rebounds and five assists per game.
Once the season was over, Staten tested the NBA draft waters briefly, getting a read on where he was ready to make the jump to the next level and where he still needed to show some improvement. When word came back and he got a read that it might be best for him to stick around another year, Staten made the decision to stick around for one more year to try to lead West Virginia on an NCAA tournament run.
The biggest thing for him to get better at was his ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc. During the first two years of his WVU career, he took a total of 24 shot attempts from three-point range - making only six of them. So the focus in the offseason shifted toward getting better and becoming a more dependable and ready option to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
As you can see, Staten’s attempts from deep went way up as a senior and he showed at times that he could consistently make them. It gave him an opportunity to expand his game a bit this season as you saw Staten depend less and less on just taking the ball to the rim. He was able to keep defenders on guard and force them to not just assume he was going to do just one thing.
Can WVU get back to cleaning the offensive glass?
Some of Bob Huggins’ best teams throughout his career - and especially during his time at West Virginia - have been successful because of their ability to effectively rebound the ball on the offensive end of the floor and create second-chance opportunities. That’s something that slowly started to go away from WVU the last few seasons and this was a big question the Mountaineers needed to answer the right way if they were going to get back on track in 2014-15. Huggins knew his team wasn’t going to be able to shoot it all that well - and it’s been pretty clear that was true - and in order to balance that out, WVU would have to use second-chance buckets as a way to cancel those struggles from the field out.
With forwards like Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon joining Devin Williams, Brandon Watkins and Nathan Adrian in the Mountaineer frontcourt after sitting out last season due to eligibility issues, WVU certainly had the bodies and athletic rebounders to be able to get on the offensive glass effectively. It was just a matter of getting the job done.
And as West Virginia got into this season it quickly became evident that the Mountaineers were back to doing what they had done so well early during the Huggins era, and the success quickly followed.
In fact, WVU became the third team coached by Huggins to be in the top five in program history in offensive rebounding - joining the 2009-10 team that went to the Final Four and the 2008-09 team.
Some of West Virginia’s best and most reliable offense this year has come from offensive rebounding. The Mountaineers are grabbing an offensive rebound on more than 46 percent of their missed shots this season - a pretty staggering number when you think about it. The only West Virginia team in recent memory to even have a slight edge over this year’s team in that category is the Final Four team, which got an offensive board on 46.8 percent of its misses - as opposed to this year’s team’s mark of 46.4 percent.
And WVU has turned those rebounds into 158 putback opportunities (defined by hoop-math.com as any shot that is taken within four seconds of a team grabbing an offensive rebound) that have helped lead to plenty of scoring chances for a Mountaineer team that struggles to shoot it well from the perimeter.
Holton and Williams have been the two biggest keys to that, as the two starting forwards became a couple of the best offensive rebounders in the Big 12 this season. Holton leads West Virginia heading into NCAA tournament play with 41 putback attempts, making 24 of them, while Williams is 18-for-35 on his chances this year.
Is this press stuff actually going to work over an extended period of time?
Probably the most intriguing thing about this team heading into the season was Huggins’ confidence in this group being able to defend better than a lot of teams he has had at West Virginia and that he could play as many as 13 players.
Sure, it sounds good to say you have 13 guys who can play and that, if you wanted to, you could send full-court pressure for all 40 minutes every game, but how many times does that actually happen over the course of an entire season when a coach says it? So, yes, at the beginning of the year, it was understandable to be a bit apprehensive of WVU’s strategy with this team and it was fine to wonder just how long it would take before the bench would shorten to nine or 10 consistent players. But this West Virginia team has been able to do exactly what it set out to do at the beginning of the season all year long, and it has worked extremely well.
West Virginia has forced more turnovers than all but one team in school history and is tied with that 1997-98 team for the most turnovers per game on the defensive end of the floor.
But, of course, just going out and forcing a lot of turnovers and wreaking havoc on other teams on the defensive end doesn’t always correlate to overall success as a team. For a good example, just look at the other two teams listed in that graphic above. The 1990-91 and 1980-81 teams were among some of the best in WVU history at getting its opponents, but still missed out on the NCAA tournament.
The big difference with this group has been how good it has been when it has been able to do the three things Huggins has preached it needed to do all season long. The veteran head coach said that if WVU did these three things, it would win just about every game it played:
- Take more shots
- Get more rebounds
- Win the turnover battle
When West Virginia has done those three things, it’s been really good - and that’s usually when it shows its true potential as one of the best teams in all of college basketball. When it doesn’t do those things, it’s not - and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
If WVU does all three of those things - if it takes more shots, outrebounds its opponents and commits fewer turnovers - the Mountaineers are 17-0 and win those games by an average of 15.8 points per game. When they don’t, their record drops to 6-9 and they’re losing by an average of nearly three points per game.
Those things add up, and in March there’s no room to screw up what has gotten you to this point all season. For WVU it’s been about making sure it does those three things and uses its full-court press to get teams out of their comfort zone.
This team has done a great job of answering most of the questions we had about it heading into the regular season. But one more answer is still left to be figured out …
Can this team make a run?
I guess we’ll find the answer to that one soon enough.