West Virginia will have a somewhat different look when it takes to the court on Thursday evening in Wheeling for the Gold-Blue Debut. The open scrimmage format won't tell us everything we want to know about the 2016-17 Mountaineers, but there are some items to watch for as the evaluation process moves from the mostly private world of preseason practice to the public space. Here's what we're keeping our eyes on:
Elijah Macon: Quite bluntly, the athletic big man has to produce more consistently. That he has the physical skills to do so is clear, but he has never been able to get everything in sync to where he looks comfortable on every trip. One time down, he'll catch the ball, make a couple of moves and score on a beautiful sequence. The next, the ball flies out of his hands as he attempts to do too much too quickly. He'll rise for majestic rejections of opposing shots, then commit three fouls in three minutes and remove himself from the action. The bad stretches have to get smaller, and the good more frequent.
In the video above, freshman Chase Harler discusses the fact that despite the frenzied pace of games on the defensive end, he actually shoots the ball best when he gathers himself and slows things down a bit on offense. That approach would benefit Macon tremendously.
The Ohio native has also discussed his work ethic in the offseason, and points to the fact that it has been the best it has ever been over the summer. Again, that's a wait-and-see item. Will it continue throughout the year? It has to if WVU is to be successful.
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Guard Rotation: A year ago, the hope was that James "Beetle" Bolden would be able to slowly work himself into some minutes at point. That was derailed with his preseason knee injury, which forced him to miss the entire year. Now he's back, but is he ready to assume some of those duties? Early returns have been mixed, and that's a big factor for the Mountaineers this year. The thinking is that Jevon Carter is much more comfortable playing off the ball, and shoots better, than with it in his hands the majority of the time. If he has to assume the majority of the playmaking duties, that throws a potential wrench into the works. Tarik Phillip can handle the ball ok, but again, being a 25-minute point guard isn't his forte. Will Bolden have the physical and mental strength to stand up to the pressure that a high-quality non-conference schedule will throw at him, much less the Big 12?
We probably won't see a ton of pressure in this scrimmage, but if Bolden is hounded by his teammates, watch how he handles the ball. Is he comfortable, or is he having to devote extra protection under pressure? Is he moving it and attacking, or just hanging on? Granted, this will be a work in progress, but we should at least get an idea of where he is on this progression arc.
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The Newcomers: Chase Harler is following his dream as a Mountaineer. Can he provide WVU the spot up shooting and occasional lift it needs from the perimeter? Just how physical is Sagaba Konate, and does his play come anywhere close to matching the impressive physique photos that have popped up of him recently? While Devin Williams comparisons are obvious, they are also way premature -- and unfair to boot. Can Maciej Bender fill a pick and pop shooting role without getting beaten up on defense? (That's a Harler question as well.)
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Injuries: In addition to Bolden's recovery, Logan Routt is battling a foot issue, Phillip has a sprained thumb, and Bender is working through an ankle sprain. Those could limit or skew the early evaluation process, but it's also something to keep an eye on with the season just a few weeks away. This team has a great deal of meshing and morphing to do, as it is going to have to score and rebound in different manners. There's not a bell cow in the middle to collect board after board, and there's not a hyperactive forward to create havoc on the front of the press. West Virginia has the pieces to succeed this year, but they have to come together in different manners, and they all need to be available in order to fire together.
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Possessions: It's no secret that head coach Bob Huggins was royally displeased with the loose ball security his team showed a year ago. The phrase "and then we throw it into the stands" was more prevalent in Huggins pressers last year than "I grew up in a small town in Ohio. Two stoplights and nine bars." In order to reduce the incidences of the former, WVU has to cut down on its giveaways. But is that a realistic expectation?
For guards, the hope is yes. Daxter Miles had 46 steals and 43 turnovers last year, and many of the latter were of the "trying to do too much" variety. With just a bit of calming, he can cut that latter number. Carter was in the same dead-even neghborhood, at 59 and 58, respectively. Phillip was a bit worse at 53 and 71. Cut those by just one per game apiece, and the effects could be excellent.
The bigs are another issue. Macon isn't blessed with the greatest hands, so he must, as described above, be more measured in his moves with the ball. The guards can help him greatly, however, by not throwing him the ball in positions where he's ill-equipped to catch it, such as when he's running the floor and receives a bullet pass at the knees. (That goes for everyone, of course.) Some of those turnovers are ascribed to the big men, when in fact they are the fault of the passer, not the recipient.
All would do well to study Nathan Adrian, who had just 28 turnovers in 635 minutes a season ago.
While this open scrimmage won't be the best environment for evaluating the status of ball protection, it could give some hints. Watch the general characteristics of ball movement and where the passes go. Are they thrown with a purpose? On target? And when one side gets a turnover, does it capitalize with a good shot, or throw it right back to the other team? Those are the areas where the Mountaineers can dress up their play and narrow the gap between turnovers (498 in 2015-16) and steals (343).