MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When West Virginia’s men’s basketball team takes the floor for the 2018-19 season, Bob Huggins will be faced with hoping that the success his team achieves can equal the potential it brings to the table.
As the Mountaineers prepare to top things off at 9 p.m. Friday night against Buffalo at the WVU Coliseum, the trek toward matching potential with real-life achievements becomes a reality.
With Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. both gone, West Virginia’s backcourt begins a serious makeover. Carter was an All-American selection and was nothing less than spectacular on defense for Huggins, winning the NABC Defensive Player of the Year award last year while earning the right to be the first recipient of the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. To all who are asked, Carter embodied what Huggins hopes to accomplish with any player. Miles, meanwhile, provided a solid option as a two-guard for four years and is second all-time for the program with 124 starts.
You don’t replace guys like that. You just have to hope that the next man up can fit the mold.
Filling those spots this year are two now-veteran players. James “Beetle” Bolden should earn the starting nod at point guard, as long as a banged up hand doesn't limit him Friday. Chase Harler, meanwhile, is likely solidified as the starting shooting guard for Huggins’ squad despite battling a back issue in the preseason.
“I was just talking to Chase about (being the old guys). We definitely feel old,” Beetle said during a preseason media session. “But it’s fun. It’s our turn to step up to the plate and lead these guys. We’re ready for that. J.C. and Dax taught us the ropes on their way out, and it’s our turn to do that with the new guys.”
Bolden started three games a year ago while seeing action in all 37 contests. He averaged 8.7 points but had just 39 assists to 36 turnovers.
Harler averaged just 1.6 points per game last season, seeing time in 33 games with two starts.
“Chase knows what he's doing, and Chase has been really good,” Huggins said of Harler. “He's put the time in. He's making open shots. That's what we need those guys to do.”
Beyond those two, West Virginia has some interesting options at the guard spot, especially at point guard.
Brandon Knapper, Jordan McCabe and Jermaine Haley each present different stories and different aspects of the game that Huggins can lean on.
Knapper was a pure scorer in high school, but a year in prep school helped develop his overall game. McCabe is a pass-first point guard with flashy moves. And Haley is a 6-foot-7 lead man with the ability to attack the rim.
During West Virginia’s 84-82 exhibition loss to Penn State, all three received ample minutes while Bolden sat out. Haley, a junior college transfer, started the game, but he missed the only shot he took — a 3-point attempt. He did, however, have two assists in 13 minutes. Knapper played 17 minutes and had 11 points and a pair of assists but picked up four fouls. McCabe played 15 minutes, shot 1-for-6 and had two helpers. While Haley didn’t commit a turnover, Knapper and McCabe combined to have six giveaways — three each.
If Bolden’s injury continues to linger, Haley presents the next best option.
"We can play him at point. We can play him off the ball. We can play him on the wing. His skill level is good,” Huggins said of the lengthy guard. “He's got to tighten up some things. He needs to get a little tougher, quite frankly, but I think he wants to play badly enough that he will. He's a talented guy. He's got the size. He's got the length."
Depth-wise, West Virginia also has other viable freshmen options in Emmitt Matthews, Trey Doomes and walk-on Taevon Horton.
“They bring a tremendous amount of energy,” Bolden said. “They come to play, and they give it their all. Their eyes are open, and they are intrigued to learn, so it’s going to be fun.”
West Virginia’s frontcourt, on paper, looks to be the strength of the Mountaineers. Esa Ahmad, Lamont West and Sagaba Konate are deeply entrenched in this run of West Virginia’s overall success, not to mention their value to the Press Virginia defensive mentality.
"I think our frontcourt can play with anybody," Huggins said. “They're not going to get nervous because there's people in the stands, and they've been in some really difficult places to play. You've got the young guys you can try and work in there, too. (The bigs) dominate practice, and they dominate open gym.”
Konate, though, might be the closest piece that West Virginia has to a sure thing. Known for his highlight-reel blocks, Konate has been working to refine his game. After contemplating a move to the NBA a year ago, the 6-8, 250-pound center decided to return to West Virginia. He was awarded with various all-conference and All-America honors during the preseason.
His biggest vote of confidence, though? The fact that he's making shots — even 3s.
"He has to be able to make open shots," Huggins said. "He doesn't necessarily have to make 3s. He can, and he's worked hard at it, but he's got to be a consistent shooter from 17, 18 feet because you've got to be able to drag your guy away from the basket.”
During West Virginia’s exhibition, Konate had 15 points and seven rebounds. He missed both of his 3-point attempts but made 4-of-9 from 2-point range and made good on each of his seven foul shot attempts. He also added three blocks.
West serves as a lengthy corner shooter for West Virginia. That was evident from his stat sheet during the exhibition, where all six of his shot attempts were from deep. He made three of them.
Ahmad, however, might provide the biggest question mark for West Virginia. With high expectations out of high school, he has vastly underwhelmed many on-lookers. Ahmad has shown flashes of what he could bring to the table, but rarely shows the ability to be West Virginia’s go-to guy.
That could change with a new focus for Ahmad, who became a father in the offseason.
"I think he realizes this is it," Huggins said. "He's done a better job in the weight room. (Strength coach Shaun Brown) has done a really good job with our guys, really working their cores hard. Esa's been in the gym. Esa's been in the gym more than he's ever been in the gym, and, consequently, he's playing better."
Whether or not West Virginia can push toward matching or exceeding the potential around this team, which once again was picked to finish third in the Big 12 and is ranked No. 13 nationally, remains to be seen.
But depth could be the key to it all.
"We can all play," Ahmad said. "Everybody, one through 15, no matter who we put in.”
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